In a modern office building on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Tianjin, rows of censors stare at computer screens. Their mission: delete any post on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, deemed offensive or politically unacceptable.
But the people behind the censorship of China’s most popular microblogging site are not ageing Communist Party apparatchiks. Instead, they are new college graduates. Ambivalent about deleting posts, they grumble loudly about the workload and pay.
Managing the Internet is a major challenge for China. The ruling Communist Party sees censorship as key to maintaining its grip on power – indeed, new measures unveiled on Monday threaten jail time for spreading rumours online.
At the same time, China wants to give people a way to blow off steam when other forms of political protest are restricted.
Reuters interviewed four former censors at Sina Weibo, who all quit at various times this year. All declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the work they once did. Current censors declined to speak to Reuters.
“People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job,” said one former censor, who left because he felt the career prospects were poor. “One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little.”
Sina Corp, one of China’s biggest Internet firms, runs the microblogging site, which has 500 million registered users. It also employs the censors.
The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“STRESSFUL, DEAD-END JOB”
Reuters got a glimpse of the Sina Weibo censorship office in Tianjin, half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train, one recent weekend morning.
A dozen employees, all men, could be seen through locked glass doors from a publicly accessible corridor, sitting in cramped cubicles separated by yellow dividers, staring at large monitors.
They more closely resembled Little Brothers than the Orwellian image of an omniscient and fearsome Big Brother.
“Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It’s not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent,” said a second former censor.
The former censors said the office was staffed 24 hours a day by about 150 male college graduates in total. They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material.
The Sina Weibo censors are a small part of the tens of thousands of censors employed in China to control content in traditional media and on the Internet.
Most Sina Weibo censors are in their 20s and earn about 3,000 yuan ($490) a month, the former censors said, roughly the same as jobs posted in Tianjin for carpenters or staff in real estate firms. Many took the job after graduating from local universities.
“People leave because it’s a stressful dead-end job for most of us,” said a third former censor.
Sina’s computer system scans each microblog before they are published. Only a fraction are marked as sensitive and need to be read by a censor, who will decide whether to spare or delete it. Over an average 24-hour period, censors process about 3 million posts.
A small number of posts with so-called “must kill” words such as references to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are first blocked and then manually deleted. Censors also have to update lists of sensitive words with new references and creative expressions bloggers use to evade scrutiny.
For most posts deemed sensitive, censors often use a subtle tactic in which a published comment remains visible to its author but is blocked for others, leaving the blogger unaware his post has effectively been taken down, the former censors said. Censors can also punish users by temporarily blocking their ability to make comments or shutting their accounts in extreme cases.
“We saw a fairly sophisticated system, where human power is amplified by computer automation, that is capable of removing sensitive posts within minutes,” said Jedidiah Crandall of the University of New Mexico, part of a team which did recent research on the speed of Weibo censorship.