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Message Control: New Rules For Social Media In China
May 28, 2012
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No foreign social media sites have been available inside China since July 2009, when riots in Urumqi led the Chinese government to shut down access to Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign sites, as well as most of the domestic microblogging services that existed at the time. Since then, Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service available only in China, has become very popular: as of February, it had more than 300 million registered users. But the service is undergoing some changes at the moment. As of today, a new 'user contract' comes into effect featuring rules explicitly restricting the types of messages that Sina Weibo users can post.

The rules were apparently introduced after local authorities criticized some "unfounded" rumours that users had posted. Under the new rules, users of the service will not be allowed to "spread rumours, publish untrue information, attack others with personal insults or libelous comments, oppose the basic principles of China's constitution, reveal national secrets, threaten China's honour, promote cults or superstitions or call for illegal protests or mass gatherings".

These rules were not invented by Sina Weibo - as the Tech in Asia blog points out, they were "pulled directly from Chinese law and are applicable to Weibo posts regardless of whether Sina includes them in a user contract". But Sina Weibo has also introduced an innovation to try to encourage users to follow the rules: a "points" system, whereby each user will be given 80 points, and will lose some of them if they contravene any of the terms of the contract.

But the rules and the points system may not be all that effective at silencing people, according to Dr. Kerry Brown, the head of the Asia Program at the UK's Chatham House think tank. Dr. Brown told the BBC, "there is a tradition of indirect criticism in which people make points using coded references. I very much doubt these rules will change anything".

However effective the rule-change ends up being, part of the impetus for updating the user contract seems to be demonstrating to the government that Sina Weibo is making an effort to control what is posted on their site. Chinese media expert Doug Young says "I think Sina are trying to be proactive and clean up the site and show the government they are taking steps to stop people from speading false information or other posts that create trouble". The rules and point system are not the only controls Sina Weibo has in place - they also have a rumoured 1,000 "information security" editors who work to remove posts about forbidden subjects.

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