Who is Charles Chao?
Charles Chao obtained his Bachelor’s in Journalism from Fudan University in Shanghai, China and his Master’s from the University of Oklahoma. He worked at Shanghai Media Group as a journalist before attending the University of Texas at Austin and earning a Master of Professional Accounting degree. He then worked as an audit manager at an accounting firm until he joined Sina, a Chinese media company, in 1999 as the Vice President of Finance. Despite the company’s previous failures, Chao decided to invest in a micro-blogging service.
What is Sina Weibo?
Weibo is the literal Chinese translation of micro-blogging, a form of blogging that uses short sentences, pictures, and files instead of lengthy paragraphs. There are various Chinese micro-blogging websites, such as Tencent and NetEase, but Sina Weibo is the most popular with 503 million registered users as of last year.
Sina Weibo is often recognized as a mix of Twitter and Facebook and owes its basic design to the creation of Twitter in 2007. However, Weibo has many features that differ from Twitter. It is used more for entertainment while Twitter is used more for news. Users can “like” items like they would on Facebook; videos, music, and emoticons are also a lot more common. Perhaps the biggest difference is the extent to which Sina Weibo embraces the mix of e-commerce and social media, exemplified when earlier this year, Alibaba, an e-commerce business, bought an 18% stake in Sina. Additionally, studies have shown that Chinese Internet users spend more time on social media and are more likely to use social media when shopping online.
Censorship in China
China is well known for blocking websites that it finds offensive or detrimental to the state of the government. Within China’s Internet, there is a surveillance network called the Golden Shield Project. Many have taken to calling it “The Great Firewall” because inside this wall, certain options won’t pop up in search engines and any objectionable material is quickly removed and deleted. For example, nothing related to the Tiananmen Square massacre in which hundreds (possibly thousands) of pro-democracy protesters were murdered, would pop up. Certain websites are blocked during times of controversy. Journalists often face jail time and fines if they write about something the government dislikes.
The timeline below was created by Chi-Chu Tschang, a student at MIT pursuing his Master of Business Administration. He had to do a final project for his News in the Age of Participatory Media class and decided to look to Weibo for inspiration. Tschang drew from the work of Cedric Sam and King-wa Fu, two researchers from the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center who created an application called WeiboScope. WeiboScope compiles the most popular material on Weibo remarkably fast. In addition to WeiboScope, Sam and Fu also created WeiboScope Search, an app that archives deleted weibos. It was from this that Tschang decided the direction his project would take.
Using the search app and some data visualization software, Tschang created a timeline with the deleted weibos. Over this, he placed politically significant events that correlated with the dates that the weibos had been deleted. Tschang discovered an interesting trend; days with the highest numbers of weibo deletions matched up with days that big events were occurring in politics. Of course, this trend is not entirely conclusive as more research needs to be done. However, Tschang’s findings do match up with a report published by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who evaluated 56 million weibos.
What gets censored?
Chinese censors are remarkably efficient. Surprisingly, they tend to focus on posts that could bring about collective action rather than those about mere criticism. Sina Weibo does censor its own posts, which is part of the reason the Chinese government allowed it to be created and continues to allow it to run. A group of about 150 men monitor over 3 million posts every day. Censors undergo a lot of stress to ensure that they catch sensitive posts; if they miss them the government typically responds by putting pressure on Sina to delete the post. The responsible censor may then be fined or even fired.
In a Reuter’s article, two journalists interviewed a few of Weibo’s former censors. They didn’t reveal any of their names, but they did reveal the censors’ feelings towards their former jobs. One man said that it was numbing work and that there was very little pay for such hard work. However, another one said, “Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It’s not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent.” I feel like that statement lined up with the majority of Chinese netizens thoughts on censorship in their country; even Chao alluded to it in the interview below. As a keynote speaker at a conference hosted by Stanford Graduate School of Business in China he discussed the fact that although Weibo has to censor itself, it is still one of the freest social media platforms on the Internet.