Thanks to a Carnegie Mellon University research team that analyzed tens of millions of posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, we can now be sure that “Ai Weiwei” (a Chinese dissident), “Falun Gong” (a Taoist-Buddhist sect) and “Jiang Zemin” (a former Chinese politician) are or were once on the Chinese censors’ black list.
Oh, and also the term “iodized salt,” which was last year rumored to protect people from radiation risks. The rumor turned out to be false. The censors apparently like gossip-mongerers as little as they do dissidents.
More importantly, the new research suggests that China’s censors are dynamic, often deleting messages as they appear in real time. And most of what they’re censoring is deleted by hand.
“The really interesting thing is, if you take the term Falun Gong, and the censorship was automatic, well you would expect to never see it,” Carnegie Mellon researcher David Bamman told BlogPost in an interview. “But the fact that we saw the term sometimes escaping the censors, and this is a really sensitive term, it seems that most of what they’re doing is manual.”
There is no way to know just how many censors China employs, says Bamman, though he says there have been low estimates of just 100. If the so-called army of censors is really that small, it’s no wonder they missed a few.
The research also showed for what may be the first time that the censors are operating with geographical precision. Messages originating from the restive Tibetan area, for example, were at much higher levels of censorship than those from the rest of China, with up to 53 percent of all messages deleted.
Later this month, Weibo will start requiring users to register with their real names, under orders of the government. Bamman says he believes this will lead to a lot more self-censorship.
“With anonymity, you say what you want without a lot of consequence. But when the government knows who you are and what you are talking about, you’ll start talking a lot less,” he said.
Others might continue to try more creative strategies to elude the censors. Bamman says many people use homonyms, or Chinese characters that sound the same but have different meanings, to try to trick the system. But if China’s censorship is truly manual, this effort may not work for long, either.