China’s Sina Weibo is in danger of becoming boring – just how the authorities want it
The success of China's censorship of microblogging sites could become a model for other nations, says Padraig Reidy
31 Jan 14

This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, 31/01/14

Sina Weibo Logo Screenshot
It’s easy to be glib about social media. Page upon page of selfies, pleas for attention from celebrities, misogynist trolls and angels-on-pinhead arguments.But as the Telegraph’s recent research shows, the Chinese authorities take the web very seriously indeed.Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, is a huge platform, with over 200 million users. And for a while, it functioned freely, or as freely as anything does in China. It was, of course, monitored, and thousands of people were employed to post pro-government opinions and stories on the network.But the old-style censorship didn’t seem to be working as well as it should. Partly because it was just too obvious. In March 2012, rumours spread that the son of a Communist Party Official had been involved in a fatal crash while driving his Ferrari. As people discussed the story, they suddenly found that the word Ferrari had been blocked. For many, this made it clear that someone powerful had something to hide, and people openly wrote about their frustration with the system.Shortly afterwards, Weibo introduced new contracts concerning conduct. Anonymity went out the window. Spreading ‘umours’ became an offence. High profile users were put on alert – if a story you shared went viral, you were personally responsible. On a platform dependent on sharing, this was bound to cause people to think twice before sending their messages out to the world. And on a reactive, interactive and instantaneous platform like Weibo or Twitter, that slowing of pace is lethal. It would appear that Weibo is in danger of becoming boring. Just how the authorities want.Could this happen elsewhere? Look at the debate in the UK: every week a fresh cry goes up for something to be ‘done’ about Twitter trolls, often beyond the existing laws that govern free speech and communication – with the ending of anonymity being a particularly popular (and ill thought out) demand. While these calls may be well-meaning, they are part of a broader uncertainty about how to deal with the fact people now have an unprecedented ability to publish to the world.

The Chinese government (and others, such as the highly tech-savvy Iranians) will tell you that this comes with an unprecedented ability to monitor and censor. As China becomes more and more powerful, its model of web censorship, both internal and external, could become the norm.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.