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Sina Weibo - Why China has been forced to embrace Social Media

Sina – Chinese for New Wave

Weibo (pronounced Way-Bore) – Chinese for Micro Blog

According to Amnesty international, China has the largest recorded number of people imprisoned for being cyber-dissidents. By calling publicly for reform and change against the wishes of the government, micro bloggers in China face harsh penalties.

The Chinese government does not only block the content of restricted websites, but has a sophisticated system by which it can monitor the Internet access of individuals. This has a severe knock on effect on the freedom in which Chinese dissidents are able to express their own opinions (without fear of reprisal) and their behavior within government controlled social media websites.

In 2009, the Urumqi riots lead to the Chinese government blocking twitter and Facebook in response to negative socio-political commentary. There was also an additional fear of activists organising themselves through social media in an Arab Spring style revolution that was seen much later in December 2010. 

This total block on Western social media platforms in turn allowed Chinese only language online communities to flourish and dominate the domestic market under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.

Sina Weibo is a Chinese only hybrid of Facebook and Twitter with a series of micro blogs and applications. 50% of the 513 million users online in China have participated in micro blogging with 100 million micro blogs posted each day, it is China’s foremost blogging platform. The Chinese government often uses this Sina Weibo to spread ideas and monitor corruption. Their aim is to stop the spread of ‘false rumors’

Response to a changing socio-economic environment

China is attempting to be a part of an “agile, responsive and creative party effort”. The government is now attempting to adapt to a new socio-economic environment by influencing social networking sites in order to control public opinion.

Influence and control are not always feasible in an ever-adapting environment of instant communication between micro-bloggers. On the 23rd July 2011 two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou killing 40 and injuring 192. Officials reacted poorly and this elicited a strong response from the Chinese online community as the nation’s media were instructed to not report the event by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department.

Between the time of the crash at 20:34 and 02:00 the following day, over 500,000 micro blog entries had been posted. Some of these posts even came directly from passengers on the trains.

In the following days after the crash, the mainstream media reported acts of heroism and courage praising the government for a swift response. Social networks however reported skepticism of the government’s poor response and accused the government of corruption.

In order to retain control of social media outlets within the nation, the Chinese government had to be willing to respond to public pressure by changing their policies. To retain their legitimacy and shape public opinion, the government had to be seen to interact with this new audience and allow a certain amount of freedom. This freedom must come at a certain price…

The Chinese government has instilled three strategies in order to allow the prosperity of the Internet whilst dealing with the multi-faceted challenge of the Internet:

  1. Strict Censorship through banning key words and phrases.
  2. Decentralisation of censorship. Sine Weibo is required by the governments to employ 1000 citizens to manually censor posts from blocked sites.
  3. Guidance of opinion” – 4,000 government blogs and 5,000 police blogs are actively “correcting facts” in order to generate a positive impression of the government.

In response to this overly critical response of the Wenzhou crash, in March of 2012 all users to the Sina Weibo site are required to verify their true identities in order to participate on the site. Those that do not verify their accounts can only see a limited version of the site and cannot generate any content of their own.

Direct comparison to the use of twitter and the London Riots.

It is interesting at this point to consider the response of the Chinese to their governance of social media and the more liberal controls placed on the users of Twitter.

Twitter and Sina Weibo will always have issues with the validity of their content. Sina Weibo because it is controlled by the state, Twitter because it is entirely un-policed! Users to each of these sites will always engage themselves with a certain level of skepticism.

During the London Riots of the summer of 2011, Roughly 2.6 million tweets were sent, several of which were proved to be guilty of generating misinformation. 

“Rioters have released a Lion from London Zoo” @Twiggy_Garcia

Many people “re-tweeted” this post and within half an hour, photos emerged of what appeared to be a lion roaming around on Primrose Hill. Within an hour of the original post, the first seeds of doubt were sown as many users posted messages disproving the original post. Very quickly, public opinion was changed and the original false statement was rectified.

Even though fewer checks and balances are put in place within Twitter than Sina Weibo, the self reporting and analytical nature of its users can create an atmosphere of trust, legitimacy and self-correction through the enabling of its users. 

Despite the fact that rumours spread at great speed via Social Media, sites such as Twitter has an equal power to dispel them within a short space of time.

How China’s new policy is affecting the use of Social Media in the region

79% of post within Weibo are positive and talk about a wide range of subjects of which only 3% is aimed at political parties.

The speed at which micro blogs are posted (see Wenzhou crash) and the perceived legitimacy of these posts has meant that Social Media has grown rapidly and largely replaced traditional media resources in China. 

This growth has come about even though we are within a period of change where Chinas micro-bloggers are unsure of how they can respond to the new controls placed over them. The number of active posters in China is still growing. It is optimistically expected that there will be 800 million users by 2015.

Sina Weibo is keen to develop its revenue streams as it is currently struggling to turn a profit due to enormous licensing, infrastructure and validation costs.

The potential commercial value of Sina Weibo is huge. iResearch has reported that online travel services within china will more than triple between 2009/13. Between 2009/11 the percentage of total revenue generated by online commerce within the travel sector grew from 15% to 20% at a total of $58 Billion.

In addition to the domestic Chinese marked, Sina Weibo are looking to expand their operations into South East Asia in order to match their competition with Baidu and RenRen. This expansion will see an extremely costly English version of the site, but due to the current unrest within the ranks of the Sina Weibo users the future of this project is in doubt.

The future of Sina Weibo is likely to follow the same pattern as Facebook where users personal/behavioral information is mined for targeted communications and relevant contextual advertising. This methodology is seen as a key method of targeting the affluent middle to upper classes within China. These users could be key to securing the long-term prosperity of Sina Weibo and other social media outlets within China.