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<nettime> The drab work of censoring China's microblogging
nettime's unwaged censor on Thu, 12 Sep 2013 12:39:19 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The drab work of censoring China's microblogging

At Sina Weibo's censorship hub, China's Little Brothers cleanse online chatter


Wed, Sep 11 20:24 PM EDT

By Li Hui and Megha Rajagopalan

TIANJIN, China (Reuters) - In a modern office building on the
outskirts of the Chinese city of Tianjin, rows of censors stare at
computer screens. Their mission: delete any post on Sina Weibo,
China's version of Twitter, deemed offensive or politically

But the people behind the censorship of China's most popular
microblogging site are not ageing Communist Party apparatchiks.
Instead, they are new college graduates. Ambivalent about deleting
posts, they grumble loudly about the workload and pay.

Managing the Internet is a major challenge for China. The ruling
Communist Party sees censorship as key to maintaining its grip on
power - indeed, new measures unveiled on Monday threaten jail time for
spreading rumours online.

At the same time, China wants to give people a way to blow off steam
when other forms of political protest are restricted.

Reuters interviewed four former censors at Sina Weibo, who all quit
at various times this year. All declined to be identified because of
the sensitivity of the work they once did. Current censors declined to
speak to Reuters.

"People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and
just do the job," said one former censor, who left because he felt the
career prospects were poor. "One thing I can tell you is that we are
worked very hard and paid very little."

Sina Corp, one of China's biggest Internet firms, runs the
microblogging site, which has 500 million registered users. It also
employs the censors.

The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.


Reuters got a glimpse of the Sina Weibo censorship office in Tianjin,
half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train, one recent weekend

A dozen employees, all men, could be seen through locked glass doors
from a publicly accessible corridor, sitting in cramped cubicles
separated by yellow dividers, staring at large monitors.

They more closely resembled Little Brothers than the Orwellian image
of an omniscient and fearsome Big Brother.

"Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a
big platform to speak from. It's not an ideally free one, but it still
lets people vent," said a second former censor.

The former censors said the office was staffed 24 hours a day by about
150 male college graduates in total. They said women shunned the
work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive

The Sina Weibo censors are a small part of the tens of thousands of
censors employed in China to control content in traditional media and
on the Internet.

Most Sina Weibo censors are in their 20s and earn about 3,000 yuan
($490) a month, the former censors said, roughly the same as jobs
posted in Tianjin for carpenters or staff in real estate firms. Many
took the job after graduating from local universities.

"People leave because it's a stressful dead-end job for most of us,"
said a third former censor.

Sina's computer system scans each microblog before they are published.
Only a fraction are marked as sensitive and need to be read by a
censor, who will decide whether to spare or delete it. Over an average
24-hour period, censors process about 3 million posts.

A small number of posts with so-called "must kill" words such as
references to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are first blocked
and then manually deleted. Censors also have to update lists of
sensitive words with new references and creative expressions bloggers
use to evade scrutiny.

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

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

The busiest times are during sensitive anniversaries such as the
Tiananmen Square crackdown on 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 high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who faced trial last month on
charges of bribery, graft and abuse of power. A verdict may come this

"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.


The Communist Party keeps an iron grip on newspapers and television
but has grappled to control information on social-networking

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

Lu Wei, director of the State Internet Information Office, said in a
speech this 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 President Xi Jinping cracks down on the spreading of

China's top court and prosecutor said people would be charged with
defamation if online rumours 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. China says it has a genuine need to stop the spread of
irresponsible rumours.

When rumours that former president Jiang Zemin 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 criticising 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," said the first former

"But 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."

($1 = 6.1210 Chinese yuan)

(Additional reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Dean Yates)

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