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The Memory Hole: How to Get Censored on China's Twitter

Messages that mention Tibet, tanks or Chinese dissidents are scrubbed on China's well-known microblogging service.
 
 
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The word “tank.” Photos and names of Chinese dissidents. Images of rubber ducks. Any mention of Tibetan protests or Bo Xilai, the disgraced senior member of China’s Communist Party. Political cartoons.

Every day, more than 100 million items are posted to Sina Weibo, the microblogging service sometimes called “China’s Twitter.” And every day, teams of censors comb through the posts in search of anything that challenges what the government likes to call a “harmonious society.”

How Sina Weibo censors its users is as revealing as the content that appears on the site, and for the past five months, we’ve been watching the watchers. We’ve created an  interactive feature, launching today, that allows readers to see and understand the images that censors considered too sensitive for Chinese eyes.

Because the Chinese government blocks popular worldwide services like Twitter and Facebook, Sina Weibo has emerged as an influential player in China’s daily life, with some  500 million users. But while the speech on Weibo is equal parts sophisticated and base, considerate and raucous, it is by no means free.

Sina’s censors appear to be walking a fine line seen frequently in modern China. If they allow users too much freedom, the government will shut them down. But if they block too much material, the users in this quasi-capitalist economy can go to one of the company's competitors.

While there are  many research projects devoted to identifying posts that are deleted on Sina Weibo, considerably less attention has been focused on censored images and the meaning behind them.

For five months, our software has been quietly checking 100 Weibo accounts,  keeping track of every post containing an image and returning repeatedly to see if those posts were deleted. Our collection has grown to nearly 80,000 posts, of which at least 4,200 -- more than 5 percent -- were deleted by censors.

We also gathered a team of people proficient in Mandarin to read and interpret 527 deleted images collected during a two-week window this summer. Among the key events that occurred in this period: The indictment of Bo Xilai, a disgraced Chinese political leader; a protest by female police officers; and the arrest of Xu Zhiyong, the co-founder of a pro-democracy movement that is still being suppressed.

Sina Weibo has long been eager to stay in the government’s good graces, even before the Chinese government started  arresting some of its most popular users this summer for “spreading rumors.”

Users who post forbidden content frequently, or who have a lot of followers, are singled out for threats and can face arrest. One user, whose name is being withheld by ProPublica because of the risk of reprisals against him by the Chinese government, posted on Sina Weibo, accusing a local government official of wrongdoing. Soon after, he received a direct message.

“The message said that they knew everything about me and about my family,” the user said. “That I couldn’t see them, but they could see me, and if I knew what was good for me, I’d delete that post because they will always be watching me.”

The user complied, noting “I had to protect my safety.” Since then, he’s never posted a message naming a specific government official.

By many accounts, the censorship apparatus deployed by Chinese companies is the most sophisticated in the world. Attempts to post a message containing words on the continually updated list of forbidden words on Weibo, such as “坦克” -- meaning “tank” -- are rejected by the service before the message can even reach a user’s followers.

 
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