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New Study: Manipulating China's Most Influential Microbloggers

Categories: Activism, Free Expression, Human Rights, Legal Threats, Regulation, China

As China's largest online social forum and most popular micro-blogging platform, Sina Weibo is subject to heavy censorship and manipulation by government actors. Earlier this week, Global Voices Advocacy explored the implications [1] of recent findings by a group of US-based computer scientists on Sina Weibo's filtering techniques. Today, we look a new study [2] from a group of researchers at Hong Kong University (HKU), who worked to measure the influence of certain groups of micro-bloggers on the site.

The study found that 80% of the original content circulated on Sina Weibo is created by a small group (4.8%) of micro-bloggers. Similar to other social media, the distribution of activity and influence is highly uneven on Weibo. It is this small minority of very active participants on Weibo who typically face government pressure to express opinions that are favorable to government interests. By taming this small but influential group of opinion leaders, authorities can channel public opinion, maintain its stability, and strengthen its legitimacy. It is thus not surprising that opinion leaders are often forced to drink tea [3] [be interrogated by police], and that some of them are paid to produce and circulate government propaganda.

The HKU study used an API [4] to randomly fetch user data from Sina Weibo. From an original sample of 29,998 validated user accounts, researchers found that 17,224 accounts were empty or had not posted to the site, meaning that these accounts were either inactive or fake. Among active micro-bloggers, 56.5% identified themselves as male and 43.5% identified as female. The geographic location of the users is reflected on the map below.

journal.pone.0058356.g001 [2]

Most users were located in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong, accounting for 9% of the total sampled micro-bloggers. Macau, Hong Kong, and Tibet were the next most populous regions.

The researchers collected 21,030 posts within the seven-day research period, in which 8,139 were original posts and 12,891 were re-posts. Only 13% of sampled microbloggers created original posts. But as mentioned above, 4.8% of microbloggers sampled created 80% of the original content on the site. Furthermore, only 4.4% of users’ posts had been re-posted or commented on. The power law [5] of Weibo is similar to other social media, such as Twitter.

Against this background, it is easy to understand why Chinese authorities have expended so much effort in taming Weibo opinion leaders.

Some researchers on the development of e-democracy in China have already pointed out that the negotiation between the state and individual has taken shape in the form of an “authoritarian deliberation [6]” or a so-called “control 2.0 [7]“. As shown in the research, the distribution of influence is highly unequal in Weibo; maintaining some control over Weibo opinion leaders is thus a critically important feature in the regime's stability.

Apart from regular “tea sessions” with security police, a practice we described in another recent Global Voices Advocacy post [3], it has recently been revealed that the state propaganda machine, China Central Television (CCTV), is believed to have paid Weibo opinion leaders to echo [8] CCTV political campaigns. One example of this was a smear campaign against Apple. Several prominent Weibo opinion leaders were instructed to criticize Apple products at 8:20pm on March 15, which is Consumer Rights Protection Day. Ministry of Tofu, a news and commentary site focused on social justice in China, has translated [9] a post from Peter Ho, a Taiwanese-American movie star who has 5 million followers on Weibo:

Apple played so many tricks in customer service? As an Apple fan, I am really hurt… Is what you’ve done worthy of [Steve Jobs]? Worthy of the young man who sold one kidney? So you bully customers just because you are big! To be posted at around 8:20.

Similar tactics have been used by corporate entities in the past, but it is less common for a state-controlled organization to be involved in such a scandal.

For opinion leaders who are not intimidated by tea sessions [3] and can't be bought off, their accounts are likely to be suspended or even deleted. During the Southern Weekend censorship scandal [10], in which censors and editorial staff at Southern Weekend newspaper clashed over the newspaper's political coverage, many reporters’ Weibo accounts were suspended. Another recent well-known case involved former Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party leader, Frank Hsieh Chang-Ting, whose Weibo accounts were deleted twice [11] in the span of a few hours last month.

In sum, it is clear that Sina Weibo's most active users will continue to have a powerful influence on public opinion and ideas in China for some time, and that this in turn will elicit persistent if not increasing government efforts to control their messages. Global Voices Advocacy will continue to cover this issue as it develops.