Is Weibo Twitter’s evil twin?

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Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook played critical roles during the Arab Spring. Can Weibo, the world’s most popular social network, play a similar role in promoting democracy in China? 

By Michael Anti

Twitter was created in 2006 but only rose to popularity in China three years later. The trigger was a massive blaze that nearly destroyed the uncompleted headquarters of Chinese state television station CCTV in Beijing. The news spread rapidly via Twitter and the Chinese realized its potential.

Twitter potential
For English speaking users, the 140-character limit is enough for more or less one sentence. But for Chinese users, 140 characters yield a short paragraph that can include all the basic elements of a brief news report. On average, a tweet in Chinese is 3.6 times more informative than an English one. Chinese netizens quickly transformed Twitter and Chinese microblogging website Fanfou into news tools. The news of the 2009 Ürümqi riots in northwestern China, for instance, was first broken to the English media via Twitter by Chinese-American writer and rock musician Kaiser Kuo (@kaiserkuo). 

However, after the 2011 pro-democracy protests in China and Ai Weiwei’s tweets on this “Jasmine revolution” the Chinese government blocked Twitter, and its popularity plummeted. Meanwhile, the Chinese censored alternative Sina Weibo gained popularity. Today, Weibo’s 400 million users  are turning the platform into a platform for freedom of speech. Government officials are coming under a more intense public scrutiny than ever before. 

Struggle to control the servers
However, it is a mistake to think that Weibo will have a positive effect on Chinese democracy - although it superficially resembles Twitter, the structure behind Weibo is quite different.

Social networking services were effective in the Arab spring because of two distinctive characteristics. First, the sources of information are diversified. Secondly, Twitter’s servers are based in California and therefore out of the reach of the Egyptian dictators. The US-based servers created an information safe-harbour for Egyptian web users to communicate and organise. 

Weibo, however, is different. While it may appear that every user can generate and spread news, the Beijing-based servers are under the tight grip of  central government. The government has access to information about and connections of all Weibo users. With the help of Internet data analysis, the Chinese central government is able to map out the social network and location of dissidents as well as predict and prevent potential public upheavals. By monitoring the Internet, the government manages to perpetuate censorship and strangle potential revolutions in the cradle. 

Centralisation of power 
Yet this is not the entire story of Weibo. As the servers are controlled by the central government, officials on the local level are no longer able to suppress users’ criticisms of municipal government. This enables the central government to exert a tighter control on the local level. When the Bo Xilai scandal broke out for example, the central government allowed users a certain freedom to criticise and discuss the provincial politician’s fall from grace.

Beijing uses Weibo to manipulate public opinion, control local government and stabilise the ruling regime. Local-level politicians have responded to this Internet-driven change in various ways. On the one hand, they try to exercise better and more transparent governance. On the other hand, they pay for lobbyists in Beijing to persuade those who control the Internet to delete potentially “dangerous” Weibo messages. According to some estimates, this “Weibo clean-up” sector is worth more than ten million annually.

Weibo is, sadly, not a blessing for Chinese citizens. The quasi freedom of speech provided by microblogging services cannot conceal the fact that information is more centralised and meticulously controlled than ever.