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Is Sina Weibo a Means of Free Speech or a Means of Social Control?

BY David Eaves | Friday, August 17 2012

Photo: Francisco Diaz / Flickr

During a trip to Beijing last week, I had an opportunity to sit down for dinner with Chinese journalist, blogger and media expert Michael Anti.

For those who have not had an opportunity to see it I suggest taking a look at his 2012 Personal Democracy Forum presentation, Walking Along the Great Firewall.

Over noodles Anti spoke about Chinese social media, and in particular how services like Sina Weibo — a Chinese version of Twitter — is not a decentralizing force in Chinese politics. The political impact of certain Weibo services are significant. According to Bloomberg, Weibo has over 300 million registered users, with top celebrity users attracting over 20 million followers. Since Weibo allows individuals to criticize government officials, it has widely been seen as a “freer” form of media, one that could empower citizens to hold the government to account (and thus decentralize power). Western media has been keen to note instances where Weibo services subverted government officials, be it on a large scale, such as in the aftermath of the high speed rail crash in July of 2011, or small events, such as students organizing an alternative venue for a lecture after a university cancelled it.

However, Anti’s argument is that Weibo tweets can be harnessed and shaped by a central authority — the managers of Sina Weibo, acting on behalf of the Chinese central government.

Think of it this way. Imagine Sina Weibo is a pipe carrying a torrent of water (tweets) that can be managed with various valves. While it may be possible to occasionally to tighten all the valves and turn the service off altogether it is better to allow many tweets to flow so as to not let pressure to build up. It is better to give people the sense that they can complain about issues, people and politics — it is a powerful outlet. What is critical is to ensure any torrent of complaints is never directed at the ultimate authority, the central government. The trick to achieving this is to shape the flow of tweets. In the case of Sina Weibo, Anti believes that tweets that are critical of the central government are essentially always censored. In other words that valve always stays off. However, while tweets complaining about local and regional governments corruption or ineptness are often permitted, they can, of course, be turned off by banning certain key words, or selectively deleting certain tweets or accounts. But, this is a discretionary choice.

Further reading

For non-Chinese speakers interested in learning more about the types of conversations taking place over Sina Weibo and other social media platforms in China, Personal Democracy Forum 2012 speaker David Wertime co-founded a site called Tea Leaf Nation that monitors and translates these online conversations. It is a fascinating resource for those interested in learning more about how Chinese netizens are reacting to, and creating, news in one of the most important countries in the world.

Thus those who control Sina Weibo basically have their fingers on some important valves — they can control what complaints get through, how much these critical tweets gain traction, and how big an online “protest” can become.

This has several interesting implications. The most important is that contrary to what many might expect, Weibo actually centralizes control. This is because it is now in the power of Sina Weibo (or the central party) to control how much public pressure is brought on a government. Thus if a government wants to squelch an online campaign against it, it needs the help of the central government — something that may come free, or at a price. It gives the central government still more leverage.

In addition, it would seem to suggest that the Communist Party has also outsourced censorship to a private company. It is unlikely that party officials can monitor all the tweets going through Weibo, as a result, they likely rely a fair bit on Weibo staff to monitor and manage traffic. Indeed, this Time magazine article suggests that Weibo has 1,000 employees whose job is focused on sifting through and censoring its users.

It also reveals what both Anti and I agree will be a signature issue for the 21st century. The person who controls the servers can have enormous influence over the discourse. This is thus also a dark warning about the way services like Facebook or Twitter could be abused should some unsavory characters take control of the algorithms that drive it or, of course, their their commercial interests make it compelling. While I would have thought it implausible three weeks ago, a future in which Twitter throttles tweets complaining about certain partners or advertisers still feels unlikely, but no longer impossible.

That said, enormous influence does not always equate complete control. Even Anti felt that manipulating the valves of Weibo will not permanently protect the central government. If more and more pressure is brought on local and regional governments, and they are ultimately forced to reform, people's attention will eventually be harder and harder to turn away from the central government — especially if there are models for reform at the regional level. In the end, over tea, Anti suggested that the valves can’t stop the flow, but by directing it, it can buy you time, and potentially lots of it. That appears to be what the Communist Party is hoping.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.