Weibo makes waves with censorship


While some internet companies strive to improve user experience, Sina Corp.’s social media platform, Weibo, excels in user censorship. New research from computer science academics indicates that not only do Weibo censors work fast, deleting a third of salacious posts within 30 minutes of their posting, they most likely do so by using a short list of repeat offenders.

Sina Weibo has become the preferred social media site in China as Twitter and Facebook are blocked. It’s not incredibly difficult to get around the government block, but the inconvenience is enough to push 500 million users to Weibo, outpacing Twitter by 200 million.

Jedidiah Crandall, Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico in computer science, was one of the five authors of the Weibo report published on March 4. Crandall says that while his colleagues have inspected Chinese censorship before, social media has changed the landscape.

“A few years ago my research was more on the packages, networks and routers,” Crandall says. Now, however, researchers much like everyone else, can follow individual posts and the re-posts in real time. “We could check their page for posts every minute, if a post was deleted we could see that,” he said.

The public nature of the site gave the researchers the freedom to install crawlers to query for pages. By following users likely to have their posts deleted, they could detect the speed and accuracy of censorship.

Just how speedy are the censors? Five percent of inflammatory posts with such keywords as “government lies” were deleted within eight minutes; 30 percent were deleted within 30 minutes; and 90 percent were taken down within a day.

Crandall said Weibo sets itself apart from other censored websites through its use of “defense in depth.” This term refers to something like a campus firewall that protects the network from harmful web pages. Crandall says it’s this level of sophistication that makes Weibo far more able to stop certain messages very quickly.

Another reason for the censors’ success is that the number of posts, re-posts and user information Weibo has collected over the past four years give the website engineers a huge searchable set of data.

The research team followed censor activity by building a select set of users, around 3,500 people who routinely use keywords that trigger post deletions, such as “support for Syrian rebels,” “government lies,” the controversial “Beijing rainforests” or “policemen.”

After following this sensitive user set for several months, the research team noted that about 12 percent of their overall posts were removed from Weibo. They estimated that Sina Corp. would need to employ 1,400 people to regulate this activity. Without the ability to search keywords and see re-posts, Crandall estimates the company would need 4,200 censors.

These individuals may work late at night, as one time stamp indicated deletion occurring at 3:25 am. The data also showed that there was a slower rate of deletions when the Chinese evening news aired, suggesting that censors are attentive to public media.

While Americans don’t routinely think about how this type of censorship could affect their lives, Crandall said there are parallels between Sina Corp.’s operation and U.S. copyright laws.

“I think what we are seeing now with Weibo is kind of a window into the future of what we will see with different countries in various laws in terms of copyright,” Crandall said. Imagine if YouTube could enforce copyright laws with the same accuracy and speed that Weibo deletes inflammatory posts. No more viral “Harlem shake.”

Cynthia Meng, analyst with Jefferies Group Inc., reiterated her hold on the stock last month as monetization of the popular platform has yet to ramp up while “time spent per active user declined slightly due to the competition from Tencent’s WeChat,” she said.

Shares of Sina Corp. are hovering around $49.50 , a 37  percent decrease from the 52-week high of $77.74 set March 2012.

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