Almost everyone who reads something about Internet censorship in China have come across such descriptions, “10 Things You Can Say on Chinese Internet” or “The Great Firewall of China is sophisticated and powerful and that the Big Brother is watching every you say on the Internet.”

Yes and no. Too often we see news stories or academic research depict censorship in China as monolithic and uniform, as it it were implemented in a clear-cut fashion. Multiple reports by The Citizen Lab and other researchers have proven otherwise. The job advertisement Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, provides yet another piece of evidence that content controls in China, which is largely commercialized and pushed down to individual Internet companies, is often fragmented and arbitrary.

“To ensure the responsibility of enterprises, strengthen Internet users’ self-discipline, clean up the environment of Weibo community, and effectively handle sexual, illegal and harmful information on Weibo, Sina Weibo has decided to enforce community-based supervisors (微博监督员, weibo jianchayuan) mechanism under the guidance of Beijing Cyberspace Administration. We are recruiting 1,000 Weibo supervisors.” wrote Sina Weibo in the job ad posted on September 27, 2017.

Let’s take a look at how the mechanism works (or not).

  • Reward: A Weibo supervisor will be rewarded 200 yuan (CA$40 roughly) each month and Weibo membership. H/She will also get a verified account status. Top-performance supervisors ( evaluated by the number of posts they report each month) will be rewarded with laptops, iPhones or domestic brands’ cellphones.
  • Assessment standard: Each supervisor must report no less than 200 pieces of harmful information each month.

There are so many things that do not seem right in this mechanism. To begin with, since these Weibo supervisors are only working part-time, I doubt that Sina Weibo will provide any kind of guidelines or systematic training to streamline the practice. Meanwhile, because Chinese laws and regulations on sensitive content are often vague, it is hard to imagine these part-time reviewers would spend time pondering upon the definition of each regulation, which almost guarantees inconsistencies and arbitrary decisions on the reporting. Secondly, setting a quota for work assessment is merely incentivizing users to surveil on each other. (I guess that’s part of the point anyway.) Crowdsourcing information controls to average users remind me of the Mass Line (群众路线, qunzhong luxian) method developed by Chairman Mao.

When Anaconda Is Not Enough 

Sina Weibo’s move to crowdsource its content monitoring work is somewhat understandable. Since China’s Cybersecurity Law came into effect, Internet companies are under even greater pressure than in the past to follow laws and regulations on content monitoring and censorship. Failure to block sensitive content can lead to fines or revocation of operating licenses.

According to one news report in 2013, Sina Weibo has a three-layer surveillance system, which uses a mix method of keyword-based automatic filtering and human reviewers to fulfill censorship purposes. There was a team of more than 600 full-time staff to be deployed to manage content in case of important or emergent events. Through empirical studies, researchers also found that deletions on Sina Weibo happen most heavily in the first hour after a post has been submitted. Focusing on original posts, not reposts/retweets, we observed that nearly 30% of the total deletion events occur within 5- 30 minutes. Nearly 90% of the deletions happen within the first 24 hours.

Despite the fact that Weibo platform has invested tremendous amount of money in manpower and technology to ensure content monitoring and controls, the platform seems to be facing particular challenge in managing its content this year.

Just two days before Sina Weibo’s job ad, Wall Street Journal reported that Sina, Tencent, and Baidu had been fined for have users spreading “violence and terror, false rumors, obscene pornography and other content that endangers national security, public safety and social order” on their social media platforms, namely Weibo, WeChat, and Tieba (one of China’s most popular discussion forums). Earlier in June this year, Sina Weibo, along with popular news portal site iFeng and video streaming platform ACFUN,  was ordered to halt all video and audio streaming services because there were “too many illegal current affairs shows and commentary programs that spread negative comments.” According to Financial Times, Sina Weibo’s market capitalisation in New York trade lost more than one billion dollars from the news.

In 2002, Perry Link used “The Anaconda in the Chandelier” to describe the phenomenon of self-censorship and over-censorship in China because anything can fit into the vaguely defined laws and regulations. Sina Weibo’s latest move seems to be telling us that even self-censorship and over-censorship by Internet companies is not enough to catch up with the tightening Internet environment in China.