What is Sina Weibo? Everything You Need to Know
There are more than 590 million Internet users in China. They are all blocked from accessing the most popular social media networks. This includes Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and VK.
Why Should You Care?
Blocking this many users from accessing popular social media networks means that the largest nation in the world has needed to create it’s own social network: Sina Weibo. Pronounced “See-Nuh Way-Bwo,” the popular Chinese social media platform is huge. Really huge. Valued on the NASDAQ at $1.6 billion, it boasts 600 million registered users in total, with approximately 222 million people actively using the site (at the time of posting).
Sina Weibo isn’t restricted to China. It’s a very accessible platform worldwide. Although, due to the strict rules surrounding the use of the site – and China’s Internet in general – nearly everyone that uses it often does so from within the confines of Chinese borders. This means that any time you perform a location-based social media search that returns a Sina Weibo post, it’s a great indication that user has ties to China.
So, What is Sina Weibo?
Sina Weibo is a micro-blogging site, similar to Twitter. It also incorporates a lot of the popular features found on other social media platforms, such as instant messaging, eCommerce features, direct comments, third party app integrations, and the standard variety of embedded multimedia including videos, photos, and voice recordings. Users also have the option to “follow” other users and companies. It features 140-character posts, much like Twitter, and a streaming homepage comprised of gossip, trends, and popular posts, similar to Facebook. Basically, Sina Weibo is a mash-up of all the most popular social media platforms, tailored predominantly to Chinese users.
The site was founded in 2009, after the July 2009 Ürümqi riots prompted the Chinese government to restrict the use of Twitter, Facebook and other popular social media sites. Sina Weibo was officially incorporated in 2010 and is headquartered in the Haidian district of Beijing. As a Chinese company, it’s important to remember that it adheres to Chinese laws. Such laws, especially those regarding Internet use, are quite strict.
What are Sina Weibo Posts Usually Saying?
What can you expect from a typical Sina Weibo post? What does finding one in the location you’re searching usually mean?
According to the stats, Sina Weibo is a more ‘personal’ platform than Twitter. Sina users divulge more personal information than Twitter users. They also tend to post up to 19% more on the weekend. Compare this with Twitter where users actually post, or Tweet, 11% less on the weekend. Sina Weibo put new rules into effect in early March 2015, which now require users to register for the platform with their real names and identification numbers. Screen names can remain a nickname or pseudonym, but only if the user’s personal details have been reported to the government. This restriction doesn’t seem to have made an impact on the number of active users. In fact, 2015 saw 34% more daily active users than 2014. This may mean that Sina Weibo users are comfortable having their real identity associated with what they’re posting on the site. But, it may also be because most users don’t have a choice.
The majority of Sina Weibo posts, therefore, contain innocuous content such as selfies, status updates, and pictures of food. Due to the restrictions in place on what can be posted, it would be a surprise to see anything else.
What they’re not saying: The censorship laws surrounding Sina Weibo
While Sina Weibo is one of China’s only online outlets for relatively free speech, all of the information posted on the site is routed through Chinese servers and is strictly monitored. It’s important to remember that, as with any social media site, just because a post is publicly available one day, there’s no guarantee that it will still be there the next.
At Echosec we have seen this first-hand. During the protests in Hong Kong in 2014, we created a geofence around areas of interest and we saw (as we usually do) images and text that made us feel as if we were in the middle of the action. Posts from Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook did a great job of showing exactly what was going on in the riots, on the ground, in Hong Kong. Yet all of the posts from Sina Weibo that showed up made us think that it was just another day. Our Sina Weibo feed was filled with updates about ‘the great lunch the user just had with friends’ and selfies. Occasionally we would see a post to Sina Weibo depicting the protests occurring throughout the streets in Hong Kong. We were quick to note these because when we re-created our geofence, the posts were gone. Within minutes of being posted, they were removed from the site. This brings us to the censorship laws and what they mean to the users of Sina Weibo.
The extent of censorship on Sina Weibo is far-reaching. In 2012, the micro-blogging site imposed restrictions to punish users whose posts are deemed offensive. This includes posts that allegedly spread fake news, include any kind of public attack, or share private information. These restrictions operate using a points system where users begin with 80 points and have a number of them deducted for every violation. Once a user reaches zero points, their account is shut down. In addition to monitoring individual users, there is an extensive keyword blacklist. Posts that aren’t approved by the censors can disappear quickly, with 30% of offending posts removed in less than half an hour.
A research team at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong has created a project called Weiboscope. The project is for “Chinese social media data collection and visualization”. According to the website: “One project objective, among many, is to make censored Sina Weibo posts of a selected group of Chinese micro-bloggers publicly accessible. Since January 2011, the system has been regularly sampling timelines of a set of selected Chinese micro-bloggers who have more than 1,000 followers or whose posts are frequently censored.” If you’re interested in the types of posts that are censored on a daily basis, the website shows a list of posts that have been recently removed, censored pictures and a word cloud of censored terms. It also shows a censorship index, which is calculated as the total number of censored posts/total number of published posts multiplied by 10000.
The comments section of posts on Sina Weibo adheres to further restrictions surrounding what can be posted. In 2013, Sina Weibo signed a pledge to eliminate 18, wide-ranging, categories of information from the comments section of Sina Weibo posts. For a full breakdown of the 18 points outlined in the pledge see this post.
Despite these restrictions, there are still activists on Sina Weibo who try to discuss human rights issues or politics and attempt to get around the censorship by using code phrases to fool the censors. Such phrases include “hide-and-seek,” “grass-mud horse,” and “river-crabbed.” While these phrases may seem like total nonsense, it’s important to recognize that they may indicate an activist-linked post which, if shared – even accidentally – can lead to serious consequences. Any user who posts a rumour that is then shared more than 500 times, or even re-posts a rumour, becomes a criminal who can be interrogated by police, arrested, and even sentenced at a court trial as the government’s way of sending a message to other potential radicals.
To Wrap Up
A great deal of websites are blocked in China. This includes the most popular social media networks. Sina Weibo is a uniquely Chinese social media feed that pulls inspiration from the other major social networks. Sina Weibo is a very large company whose users almost always have ties to China.
Due to the strict regulations surrounding posting to the site, it may be difficult to garner information that you’re looking for from the platform. Using a location of interest to start your search may lead you to what you’re looking for. Make sure that you record your findings, chances are they may be gone before you can find them again.
In terms of using social media for your business: having more social media feeds leads to more information sources, which leads to better decisions. Always be sure to ask your social media search engine which feeds they have available, and how they may be relevant to you.