Tue, Sep 17, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Internet censorship a ‘dead-end job’ in China

As Beijing expands its censorship of social media, a new generation of young censors find themselves overworked and ambivalent about their role in policing Internet speech

By Li Hui and Megha Rajagopalan  /  Reuters, TIANJIN, China

For most posts deemed sensitive, censors often use a subtle tactic in which a published comment remains visible to its author, but is blocked for others, leaving the blogger unaware his post has effectively been taken down, the former censors said. Censors can also punish users by temporarily blocking their ability to make comments or shutting their accounts in extreme cases.

“We saw a fairly sophisticated system, where human power is amplified by computer automation, that is capable of removing sensitive posts within minutes,” said Jedidiah Crandall of the University of New Mexico, part of a team which did recent research on the speed of Weibo censorship.

If a sensitive post gets missed and spreads widely, government agencies can put pressure on Sina Corp to remove the post and occasionally punish the censor responsible with fines or dismissal, the former censors said.

On an average day, about 40 censors work 12-hour shifts. Each worker must sift through at least 3,000 posts an hour, the former censors said.

The busiest times are during sensitive anniversaries, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre of pro-democracy protesters which took place on June 4, 1989, and major political events.

The censors shifted into high gear during the downfall last year of former CCP Chongqing secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來), who faced trial last month on charges of bribery, graft and abuse of power. A verdict may come this month.

“It was really stressful, about 100 people worked non-stop for 24 hours,” the first censor said, referring to when Bo was stripped of his posts and later expelled from the party.

FREEDOM MEANS ORDER

The CCP keeps an iron grip on newspapers and television, but has grappled to control information on social-networking platforms.

Internet firms are required to work with the party’s propaganda apparatus to censor user-generated content.

Lu Wei (魯煒), director of the State Internet Information Office, said in a speech last week that “freedom means order” and that “freedom without order does not exist.”

State media has reported dozens of detentions in recent weeks as the new government of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) cracks down on the spreading of rumors.

China’s top court and prosecutor said people would be charged with defamation if online rumors they created were visited by 5,000 Internet users or reposted more than 500 times.

That could lead to three years in jail, state media reported on Monday last week China says it has a genuine need to stop the spread of irresponsible rumors.

When rumors that former president Chinese Jiang Zemin (江澤民) had died went viral on Weibo, the seemingly irrelevant words “frog” and “toad,” most likely referring to Jiang’s peculiar glasses, were used to refer to Jiang and later banned.

Censors are told what kinds of comments are off limits.

“The most frequently deleted posts are the political ones, especially those criticizing the government, but Sina grants relatively more room for discussions on democracy and constitutionalism because there are leaders who want to keep the debate going,” the first former censor said.

“There hasn’t been any sign of loosening control on social media since Xi Jinping took power,” he added. “Not from what we could feel at work.”

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