When Barack Obama told students in Shanghai last week that he had never used Twitter, there were two responses. In the west, surprise from some of his 2.6 million followers. And in China, reportedly, a surge in queries on Google China: “What’s Twitter?”
On the mainland, it is “popular only within a tiny circle of white collar workers”, observed a state-run website recently. The article failed to mention that the service had been blocked a few weeks before – two days before the 20th anniversary of the bloody suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square.
Other sites, including Facebook and YouTube, are victims of a longer running clampdown. While the tech-savvy still access them via proxies or a virtual private network (VPN), to do so is increasingly inconvenient. “If you look at the sites blocked now and those blocked five years ago, it’s gone from web 1.0 to web 2.0 – it’s social media,” says Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based expert on internet use in China. “The authorities are not worried about people having access to what the rest of the world is saying, but about the ability of these tools to spread rumours very, very quickly.”
Two of Twitter’s most popular local rivals – Jiwai and Fanfou – were taken offline shortly after 197 people died in clashes in Xinjiang. State media have alleged that social media “spread misinformation” and even that outsiders used them to orchestrate the violence.