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Communication & Technology

China’s censorship of social media; how they do it

China Censors

Computer Keyboard

For those of us who live in the democratic world, its taken for granted that a social utility such as Twitter is an open forum, where people can say just about anything and not worry about censorship.

Not only are there few rules in place to regulate Twitters content, it’s obvious that corporate or government censors, if they actually existed, would never be able to keep up with the content.

Not so in China, where the equivalent of Twitter (known as Weibo) is censored by an army of trawling censors who quash dissent and controversy with lightning speed.

And although the details of how this feat is accomplished are not common knowledge (China does not share its censorship secrets openly), a group of computer scientists has been able to ascertain just how efficient their methods must be.

Led by Dan Wallach – of Rice University in Houston, Texas – the team observed a sample group of 3500 posters who logged onto Weibo, posted numerous posts and comments, and then watched as roughly 4500 of them got censored in just over 15 days.

This case study demonstrated just how fast the censors must be, and how many must be employed by the state media apparatus.

Of the 4500 posts that were censored, thirty percent were deleted within a minute of being posted. Another sixty percent were removed by the end of the day, with the final ten percent removed the following two weeks.

Considering that Wiebo has some 300 million users who send roughly 100 million messages a day – which works out to about 70,000 messages per minute – that’s not only impressive, it’s downright amazing!

From their sample data, Wallach and his colleagues drew some tentative conclusions about what the state-censorship apparatus must look like:

“If an average censor can scan around 50 posts a minute, that would require some 1400 censors at any instant to handle the 70,000 posts pouring in. And if they work 8 hour shifts, that’s a total of 4200 censors on the payroll each day.”

China Censors 2

Internet Cafe

Naturally, it is assumed they have some helpful programs and computer tricks to save them some time. These would include an auto-block for obvious subjects (such as “Tiananmen Square“), keyword alerts, and a list of known and/or repeat offenders.

But it’s clear that China is putting some serious effort into ensuring that its social media remains clean in real time instead of delaying posts, or shutting down the service all together.

Still, Wallach and his colleagues were interested in seeing exactly what type of posts were likely to get censored based on their content.

Their findings indicated that topics commonly deleted include phrases such as “support Syrian rebels”, “Lying of gov. (Jixiang)”, “One-Child policy abuse” and “group sex”.

The topics that trigger mass removal the fastest are those that combine events that are hot topics in Weibo as a whole, such as sex scandals or corruption, especially those that pertain to the government or policemen.

Naturally, Wallach and his colleagues say that they have several goals for the the future, such as attempting to find out more about the way Weibo prioritises content for deletion.

But of course, that will depend on their continued ability to gain access, which could be difficult given their recent activity on the site!

And although their study does not offer any immediate conclusions, it is still a fascinating study that provides a rare glimpse inside one of the world most’s prominent and repressive regimes.

Sources: gizmodo.com, technologyreview.com

About storiesbywilliams

Matt Williams is a professional writer, science fiction author, Taekwon-Do instructor, and the curator of the Guide to Space at Universe Today. His articles have been featured on Popular Mechanics, Business Insider, Gizmodo, IO9, and HeroX. His first published novels, The Cronian Incident and The Jovian Manifesto, were published by Castrum Press. He lives with his wife and family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.


5 thoughts on “China’s censorship of social media; how they do it

  1. Reblogged this on middlekingdom1of10boyz and commented:
    OK, I might be pushing it a little with the censors by reblogging this. My friends in the US might learn about how much different things are here. Censorship is real here, as I use my VPN to even get to this blog. I also use the VPN for Facebook everyday. With a little luck they won’t crash my VPN connection after posting this.


    Posted by 1of10boyz | March 26, 2013, 9:02 pm
  2. Reblogged this on Stories by Williams and commented:
    The latest, by yours truly, at CDM!


    Posted by storiesbywilliams | March 27, 2013, 1:09 am
  3. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.


    Posted by OyiaBrown | March 27, 2013, 6:22 pm


  1. Pingback: Chinese censors target Winnie the Pooh and Tigger | China Daily Mail - June 15, 2013

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