Sina Tests Out New Censorship Methods

Yesterday, Sina Weibo users reported that sensitive search terms, which had previously been blocked, were getting results:

But it was quickly discovered that these results just represented a temporary change in censorship methods, not an eradication of blocked search terms. From the Wall Street Journal:

In a serious shift of censorship tactics just days ahead of the anniversary of the government’s bloody June 4, 1989 crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen, Sina appears to have begun to allow searches for terms associated with the highly sensitive event. But instead of turning up content related to the incident, searches yield results that have nothing to do with the protests or the government’s heavy-handed response.

The move represents a significant jump in the sophistication of censorship capabilities of the company, according to, an organization that monitors Chinese censorship and first reported on the change in tactics on Friday.

[…] In the past, searches for most sensitive results returned an error message or a notice informing users that results could not be displayed due to government regulations. For those sensitive terms that could be searched, a filtered list of results from roughly a week in the past would be displayed.

Now Sina seems to have the capability to return a cleaned up list of search results of posts put up within an hour, a significant technological jump according to The effect is that users searching for sensitive terms are more likely to believe posters are actively discussing the subject, but not saying anything controversial. [Source] reports on the search results:

The results we received when we searched for “六四事件” (June 4th incident) showed that the first page of results displayed not all results but carefully selected results. While the first results page seems to indicate that there are more than 50 pages of results, no results are shown when you click through to the next page or any page beyond the first.

[…] We have also previously reported that Sina has delayed search results for sensitive keywords.

When testing the delayed censorship tactic, we conducted two simultaneous searches of similar keywords, one sensitive and one non-sensitive. In the case of searching for results for “六四” (June 4), we used “五七” (May 7) as a control group, to be sure that search results were indeed intentionally delayed. As suspected, results for “五七” (May 7) displayed posts that were ten minutes old while the most recent June 4 posts were several hours old.

Sina’s original methods of filtering sensitive search methods was back in place later the same day, indicating they may have been testing out a new system. For more on sensitive search terms on Sina Weibo, see CDT’s ongoing series of translations of filtered words and phrases. See also a slideshow from Foreign Affairs of terms filtered by Sina Weibo search, with two disclaimers by Jason Ng, who put the slideshow together:


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