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Last updated at 16:58 GMT, Monday, 11 March 2013

Monitoring microblogs

Summary

11 March 2013

If you write something politically sensitive on China's microblogs, or Weibo, how quickly might it be deleted? Researchers in the United States have been looking into the issue and found some surprising results.

Reporter:

Viv Marsh

A Chinese student using a computer

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Report

With more than half a billion Chinese online, and many of them avid microbloggers, the speed of censorship uncovered on Sina Weibo is astonishing. The researchers mined data on microblog comments removed by administrators, and found that nearly a third of the deleted posts were taken down in the first 30 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, criticism of the government, local scandals and complaints about China's one-child policy were blocked most quickly. But the team worked out that if none of the process was automated, Sina Weibo would need to employ more than 4,000 speed-reading censors a day, just to keep up.

The researchers uncovered a range of devices aimed at bringing bloggers into line. They included: hiding posts from other users, flagging repeat offenders for closer scrutiny, and tracking backwards to delete sensitive topics everywhere they arose.

With China's media so strictly controlled, the study has raised questions about why microblogs allow people to post before censorship at all. One of the researchers, Professor Dan Wallach, told the BBC that Sina Weibo had to satisfy government censorship requirements without seeming heavy-handed to its bloggers. He said it had to walk a fine line.

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Vocabulary

avid

extremely keen, enthusiastic and interested

censorship

deleting parts of books, films, newspapers, etc. that are believed to be unsuitable

mined

found by searching carefully for a long time

scandals

situations in which important people behave in a dishonest or immoral way that shocks a lot of people

bringing bloggers into line

forcing bloggers to follow the rules

flagging

making a note of; highlighting something for more attention

scrutiny

detailed and very close attention or examination

to satisfy

to please someone by giving them what they want or need

heavy-handed

using too much force

to walk a fine line

to be very careful in finding the right balance