Several media sources reported last week that China’s popular microblogging service Sina Weibo had blocked the word “truth” from its search function. Though Sina later unblocked the term, the incident showcases the complexities of online censorship in China.
Sina Weibo, which is China’s answer to Twitter, has more than 300 million users. A Hong Kong-based current affairs magazine was one of the first to report that a search for truth yielded no results. Likewise, CNN reported that when they searched for “truth” on Sina Weibo on July 13, they received this message: “according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for ‘the truth cannot be displayed.” CNN later reported that “by July 16, the search results for ‘truth’ were again displayed as normal. No-one, it seems, can explain if this was a temporary censorship aimed at some unknown negative news, or just a technical problem.” There was no independent confirmation from Sina, according to The Guardian.
China uses a multi-layered approach to filtering. China’s “Great Firewall” actively filters websites like Facebook and Twitter. For popular, local social media platforms, like Sina Weibo, China encourages the companies to self-censor their services. These companies regularly block terms relating to politically sensitive topics such as Tiananmen Square.
Still, it is unclear why Sina Weibo would block the term “truth.” Yanshuang Zhang notes two interesting points regarding the incident in The Conversation, an online Australian publication.
1) Only searching for the term “truth” was temporarily blocked, not posting the term.
2) While “truth” is a common term in Mandarin, people rarely search for the term itself. Rather, they search for specific events, even if the truth is potentially at issue. They would not search for “the truth about Chen Guangcheng:” they would simply search for “Chen Guangcheng.”
Though Chinese netizens operate in a heavily controlled online environment, China’s censorship methods are multifaceted and nuanced. A recent study conducted by our colleagues at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences found that posts on blogs and message boards are censored “if they are in a topic area with collective action potential and not otherwise. Whether or not the posts are in favor of the government, its leaders, and its policies has no effect on the probability of censorship.” Likewise, Jeremy Goldhorn of Danwei, a company that tracks media and Internet in China, told the China Digital Times that “social media has, perhaps for the first time in Chinese history, given every citizen a space where they can express themselves” despite efforts by the social media companies to delete objectionable material or censor terms.