Hoobastank, the American rock band behind the cloying 2003 earworm "The Reason," is not welcome on Sina Weibo, China’s premier microblogging site. The censors do not approve.
At first, Jason Q. Ng, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab, who has been tracking Weibo’s blocked terms on a Tumblr site for two years, thought the culprit was the word "tank," which had been previously blocked. Or maybe it was the music itself, deemed too objectionable for the Chinese people.
Instead, Ng ran another search. "Tank" wasn’t blocked. The problem was "stank," which, along with a litany of other terms like "hairless," "flash mob," "pantyhose," and "CAPTCHA," has been forcibly removed from the site’s online vocabulary.
Behind China’s "Great Firewall" of censorship, Sina, a private company, employs an army of scrubs to keep posts in line with the state’s one-party agenda. Some of the blocked terms betray a prudish sense of propriety, while others tamp down political dissent. Either way, the censorship can’t be too obvious, for fear of making Weibo users too heated. But the censorship continues, if only in a more subtle, tailored manner.
Ng uses a unique and revealing method of tracking blocked terms. Instead of paying close attention to political scandals and looking up relevant key words, Ng has been running all the article titles in the Chinese Wikipedia through a computer script that checks them against Weibo. "Now we have a more complete sense of what Sina Weibo considers sensitive," Ng said.
So far, he’s tested 700,000 keywords, 1,500 of which were blocked. Removing redundant terms, Ng identified 500 independent censored terms, and for the book he published earlier this year on the project, Ng discussed 150 of them.
Some of the terms are fairly obvious, like "one person blocking tanks" (self-explanatory). Others, like CAPTCHA, still stump Ng to this day. Other terms are seemingly bizarre, but actually carry loaded political discourse. The blocked "hair bacon," or "hairy jerky," which sometimes shows up as a fake recipe, for example, is a derogatory term referring to Mao’s preserved body at the Museum of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square.
Over time, Ng has noticed that Weibo’s censorship approach has changed. The censors are relying less on automatically blocking terms, and more on human judgment. Some censors are assigned to individual Weibo users, he says, where they can monitor celebrity bloggers’ posts. The State Information Office has even reached out to these bloggers, also known as Big V (for "verified") users, and invited them to a public forum to encourage more "positive" discussion online.
"The government is forging more of these offline connections to try and bring in and collaborate with these Internet users. It’s not just a virtual relationship anymore. And certainly, any time you have that sort of thing, they’re not purely Internet users. They’re people who can feel the direct effects of their overseers," Ng says. "Going forward, I think that will be one of the more interesting things. Seeing if these chilling effects take hold and persist."
He’s also picked up on surprising similarities in language between China’s state officials and American ones when it comes to defending online censorship, or in the United States’ case, NSA surveillance. "Hopefully the information I’ve provided will actually spark an honest and constructive conversation," he adds.
Going forward, Ng will continue to update his Blocked on Weibo Tumblr, but he has launched another project that will further analyze dissemination of ideas behind the Great Firewall. This past summer, Ng started looking at terms across Chinese Wikipedia and other online dictionaries and encyclopedias to see which content is most often missing, or protected.
"I think that will be an interesting chance for me to explore how Internet users deal with what they can and cannot say," he says.