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MIT Research: China's Sina Microblogging Deletes Posts at ''Appalling Rate''

( [email protected] ) Mar 15, 2013 01:23 PM EDT
A US survey uncovered the deletion of “appalling data” by China’s Sina microblogging, where 30% of microblogged data were deleted within 30 minutes of posting, which was near Godspeed.  This reflected the fear of authorities to the freedom of speech, and their control over speech had been criticized by netizens.
Sina Weibo is China's largest microblogging website.

A US survey uncovered the deletion of “appalling data” by China’s Sina microblogging, where 30% of microblogged data were deleted within 30 minutes of posting, which was near Godspeed. This reflected the fear of authorities to the freedom of speech, and their control over speech had been criticized by netizens.

The Chinese website of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) quoted a researched report in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “MIT Technology Review” magazine, which uncovered the “deletion” scandal of Sina microblogging. This report pointed out that 30% of the deletions were completed within 5 to 30 minutes of posting, meaning that the deletions were almost happening in “real time”.

The study was conducted by Dan Wallach, a professor of Rice University of Houston, and his colleagues last year, in response to more than 3500 deleted posts of Sina microblogging users, when a 15-day long observation period took place.

During this period of observation, these users had approximately 4500 posts deleted, which equaled 12% of all posts. Of these deletions, 5% happened within 8 minutes of posting; 30% happened within 30 minutes of posting; 90% within 24 hours of posting.

The article expressed that this implied that the officials of Sina microblogging carried out their inspections “almost in real time or immediately”, the efficiency of which was appalling.

Obviously, deletion of posts did not all result from official “inspections”, and many posts were deleted by the users themselves. However, there was a difference between the two: the officially deleted posts would display “this post is not suitable to be publicized”, while self-deleted posts would display “this post is not available”. The Wallach team’s interest focused on the former situation.

The researchers also found that users of microblogging in China issued 70,000 posts per minute on average. If one inspector examined 50 posts per minute on average, with an 8-hour work day, approximately 4200 inspectors would be required to respond to the massive number of posts issued daily.

In addition to establishing a vast network of online inspectors, the authorities also actively used advanced technology to aid the inspections. Wallach mentioned a locked “keyword” technology. However, clever netizens would think of ways to curb these keywords, posing a problem for this type of technology.

Besides, the authorities paid extra attention to the user with a history of “being deleted”. Wallach discovered that posts from these particular users were deleted faster than the general population of users.

Moreover, researchers looked at deletion formats within 1 day, and found that activity slowed after 7 pm, and picked up in speed again in the next morning or afternoon.

The fact that Chinese authorities used deletion of microblogs to exert strict control on the internet had long sparked dissatisfaction in netizens. Apart from deletions, Beijing authorities enforced a “real name system” of microblogging, in order to prevent the spread of sensitive messages surrounding anti-communism on the internet.

Chinese authorities, apart from deleting or filtering sensitive terminology that touched on political issues, would slaughter Christianity at times. In June of last year, the microblogged video clip of Pastor Yuan Zhi-ming’s Gospel sermon was deleted, with a ban of uploading all Gospel-related video clips.

The banning of Pastor Yuan’s video sermon on Sina was not an isolated incident. Previously, there were North American Chinese who reflected that they were unable to upload video clips of sermons by well-known pastors on the China’s Sina site. When they questioned Sina’s officials, they were never provided with a satisfying explanation.

China’s microblogging has some three hundred million users, and its influence and speed of information transport has surpassed media such as newspapers and television. It has become the main stream for information broadcasting. This is also the main reason why authorities exert control over microblogging.

On the topic of China limiting the space where people can express their opinions freely, there are netizens who say, “This shows the authorities’ fear of freedom of speech, and reflects their low self esteem and fear of criticisms. This also makes the constitution of freedom of speech an empty statement.”

[Editor's note: Carol Lee translated the article.]