1. Retuers interviewed four censors who worked at Sina Weibo: “At Sina Weibo’s censorship hub, China’s Little Brothers cleanse online chatter.” Some choice quotes:
- "People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job," said one former censor, who left because he felt the career prospects were poor. "One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little."
- ”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,” said a second former censor.
- They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material.
2. Can we have a whole book of this? My appetite has only been whetted. Some day maybe there’ll be a Chinese remake of The Lives of Others, but with a Weibo censor instead of a Stasi one. (It might be hopelessly boring though if it’s anything like what the article makes their lives out to be.)
3. The number of censors cited in the article (“40 censors work in 12-hour shifts” and “100 people worked non-stop for 24 hours” during intense periods) fits with the theory that much of the censorship is computer assisted. Without using algorithms to flag posts, Zhu et al’s paper (The Velocity of Censorship) estimated that you’d need 4,200 censors to to manually read every new post on Weibo, which would be inefficient. But is this Tianjin office the only such facility Sina Weibo has, or is it just one of many? Article doesn’t make that clear.
4. ”The most frequently deleted posts are the political ones, especially those criticising the government…” said one censor. This is interested in light of Gary King and co’s argument that the primary cause for deletion of posts online is the material’s potential for collective action—meaning whether there might be actual demonstrations of protests stemming from the post. Their argument (I’m oversimplifying of course) based on the data they’ve collected is that you can criticize the authorities as much as want—so long as you don’t call on others to do something together. They might get a pass because their first research paper (How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression) doesn’t cover Weibo, but their new paper does (A Randomized Experimental Study of Censorship in China). So either King’s conclusions really don’t apply to Weibo or this one censor doesn’t really have a good sense of what his team is actually censoring. Though then again, “political” posts doesn’t exclude such posts from also being calls for collective action, but there are vast numbers of critical, anti-gov posts that don’t call for such action. My gut is that the King conclusion may not apply well to Weibo or is perhaps an overreach, but as far as folks can tell, their data seems pretty irrefutable (would love to get my hands on the second paper’s dataset).
5. For the most part, the details revealed about how the censorship works mostly gibes with the research out there (high five researchers!). For instance, Zhu et al estimate of how efficient censors are (can read 50 posts per minute) is exactly what the censors report (3000 posts per hour).
6. Nitpick: Weibo has 500 million registered accounts, not users. 500 million users sounds really impressive until you realize most of them are zombies. Better metric to use is over 50 million daily users, which is definitely a lot, but still not Facebook-level, which reports close to 700 million daily active users.