For years, Chinese authorities have been taking measures to mitigate any risk posed by microblogs—once regarded as a unprecedentedly powerful platform for free speech in China. As part of a sweeping campaign to gain control over online public opinion, last year the central government began tightening its grip on popular microblogging service Sina Weibo. In August, influential “Big V” microbloggers became primary targets, and in September, the Supreme People’s Court issued a legal means to punish those accused of spreading online rumors. Since then, the crackdown has seen the government mandate “Seven Bottom Lines” to “build a favorable online environment” (and the punishment of over 100,000 Sina Weibo accounts who failed to heed those recommendations), as well as the detention of many outspoken Weibo users. For a detailed timeline of the Xi administration’s ongoing campaign to control online discourse, see a recent post from Fei Chang Dao.
While changes in the atmosphere of Sina Weibo have already been noted by prominent web users, a recent study of the microblogging service provides data to suggest the government’s crackdown on social media is proving effective. The Telegraph reports the findings from a study they commissioned from East China Normal University:
Research commissioned by the Telegraph shows that the number of posts on the hugely successful Twitter-like microblog may have fallen by as much as 70 per cent in the wake of an aggressive campaign by the Communist party to intimidate influential users.
Once an incalculably important public space for news and opinion – a fast-flowing river of information that censors struggled to contain – it has arguably now been reduced to a wasteland of celebrity endorsements, government propaganda and corporate jingles.
[…T]he findings from the research will be a huge blow to those who hoped that Sina Weibo would weaken the Communist party’s monopoly on information.
[…] Breaking the data down further, the most active users within the sample have simply switched off. In March 2012, there were almost 430,000 people posting 40 times a day, almost every day. By last December, there were only 114,000, a fall of 73 per cent.
[…] Two weeks ago, it emerged that the total number of users of Weibo had fallen for the first time, by 9pc in 2013 to 281 million. In response, $500 million (£302 million) was wiped off the value of Sina, its parent company, in New York. Sina’s market capitalisation is now $4.5 billion. [Source]
As constraints have been tightening on Sina Weibo, users have increasingly been moving to slightly more private social media platforms, such as Tencent’s Weixin (WeChat). While privacy is one reason for the migration, the increasingly obvious government influence on Weibo has also stunted the vitality that once attracted users. Index on Censorship’s Padraig Reidy looks at how turning the closest thing China had to a freewheeling public forum into a more insipid venue was in the best interest of the authorities. More from the Telegraph:
Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, is a huge platform, with over 200 million users. And for a while, it functioned freely, or as freely as anything does in China. It was, of course, monitored, and thousands of people were employed to post pro-government opinions and stories on the network.
But the old-style censorship didn’t seem to be working as well as it should. Partly because it was just too obvious. In March 2012, rumours spread that the son of a Communist Party Official had been involved in a fatal crash while driving his Ferrari. As people discussed the story, they suddenly found that the word Ferrari had been blocked. For many, this made it clear that someone powerful had something to hide, and people openly wrote about their frustration with the system.
Shortly afterwards, Weibo introduced new contracts concerning conduct. Anonymity went out the window. Spreading ‘[r]umours’ became an offence. High profile users were put on alert – if a story you shared went viral, you were personally responsible. On a platform dependent on sharing, this was bound to cause people to think twice before sending their messages out to the world. And on a reactive, interactive and instantaneous platform like Weibo or Twitter, that slowing of pace is lethal. It would appear that Weibo is in danger of becoming boring. Just how the authorities want it. [Source]
In an articulate analysis of the Telegraph-commissioned study and government crackdown on social media, David Wertime argues that hope should not be lost, for the power of speech lies not in any particular digital venue, but with the people. From Foreign Policy:
In its heyday, Weibo provided a valuable window into the often-opaque country for foreign journalists, and a steam valve for aggrieved citizens. Like any important media property, it both drove and reflected widespread sentiment. It did this by collecting what had once been isolated dinner-table conversations and agglomerating them into one massive digital space. The effect was exponential, not additive. Once Chinese with minority opinions — even heterodox ones — had a way to learn that they were not alone, they felt emboldened to speak further. […] Chinese discussion has retreated into private corners again. That includes social networks like the now-thriving WeChat, a smartphone-based social network that keeps discussions mostly between friends — and Chinese authorities, who assuredly monitor it. Think of it as a virtual dinner table, albeit one with a microphone strapped to its underside.
[…] During its halcyon period, press would often refer to the “power of Weibo.” That may have overstated the case. Platforms like Weibo are ultimately abstractions, ones comprising human beings, with all their attendant flaws and vulnerabilities. Once Chinese authorities got wise to this, they focused on instilling fear in some of the people who made Weibo special. It’s a decision that has brought stress and tragedy into the lives of hundreds of human beings. The result is deeply disheartening to Chinese citizens and frustrating to those seeking to make sense of the world’s largest country.
But it also offers a reason to hope. If in fact hundreds of millions of Chinese people constituted the heart and soul of Weibo — and not some serendipitous strings of computer code — then their collective citizen power remains, even if it’s currently a disembodied force in search of a digital or institutional host. […] [Source]