Journalism in the Public Interest

How to Get Censored on China’s Twitter

For five months, we’ve been observing 100 accounts on Sina Weibo, “China’s Twitter,” keeping track of images that are deleted by censors. Those deleted images provide a window onto China’s vast system of censorship.

We’ve created an interactive feature that allows readers to see and understand the images that censors considered too sensitive for Chinese eyes.


Updated (Sept. 29, 2014): Sina is censoring Weibo posts about the “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong. Weiboscope, a project that monitors censorship on the service, reports that the number of censored posts has increased dramatically.

The word “tank.” Photos and names of Chinese dissidents. Images of rubber ducks. Any mention of Tibetan protests or Bo Xilai, the disgraced senior member of China’s Communist Party. Political cartoons.

Every day, more than 100 million items are posted to Sina Weibo, the microblogging service sometimes called “China’s Twitter.” And every day, teams of censors comb through the posts in search of anything that challenges what the government likes to call a “harmonious society.”

How Sina Weibo censors its users is as revealing as the content that appears on the site, and for the past five months, we’ve been watching the watchers. We’ve created an interactive feature, launching today, that allows readers to see and understand the images that censors considered too sensitive for Chinese eyes.

Because the Chinese government blocks popular worldwide services like Twitter and Facebook, Sina Weibo has emerged as an influential player in China’s daily life, with some 500 million users. But while the speech on Weibo is equal parts sophisticated and base, considerate and raucous, it is by no means free.

Sina’s censors appear to be walking a fine line seen frequently in modern China. If they allow users too much freedom, the government will shut them down. But if they block too much material, the users in this quasi-capitalist economy can go to one of the company's competitors.

While there are many research projects devoted to identifying posts that are deleted on Sina Weibo, considerably less attention has been focused on censored images and the meaning behind them.

For five months, our software has been quietly checking 100 Weibo accounts, keeping track of every post containing an image and returning repeatedly to see if those posts were deleted. Our collection has grown to nearly 80,000 posts, of which at least 4,200 -- more than 5 percent -- were deleted by censors.

We also gathered a team of people proficient in Mandarin to read and interpret 527 deleted images collected during a two-week window this summer. Among the key events that occurred in this period: The indictment of Bo Xilai, a disgraced Chinese political leader; a protest by female police officers; and the arrest of Xu Zhiyong, the co-founder of a pro-democracy movement that is still being suppressed.

Sina Weibo has long been eager to stay in the government’s good graces, even before the Chinese government started arresting some of its most popular users this summer for “spreading rumors.”

Users who post forbidden content frequently, or who have a lot of followers, are singled out for threats and can face arrest. One user, whose name is being withheld by ProPublica because of the risk of reprisals against him by the Chinese government, posted on Sina Weibo, accusing a local government official of wrongdoing. Soon after, he received a direct message.

“The message said that they knew everything about me and about my family,” the user said. “That I couldn’t see them, but they could see me, and if I knew what was good for me, I’d delete that post because they will always be watching me.”

The user complied, noting “I had to protect my safety.” Since then, he’s never posted a message naming a specific government official.

By many accounts, the censorship apparatus deployed by Chinese companies is the most sophisticated in the world. Attempts to post a message containing words on the continually updated list of forbidden words on Weibo, such as “坦克” -- meaning “tank” -- are rejected by the service before the message can even reach a user’s followers.

Still, even the best automatic filtering technology can miss subtleties, and are frequently circumvented by Weibo’s human users, using puns, sarcasm and typographic tricks.

Weibo users often use typographic tricks to beat out censoring technology. A nonsensical phrase such as “eye field” looks similar in Chinese to the characters meaning “liberty.”

“The Chinese language offers novel evasions, such as substituting characters for those banned with others that have unrelated meanings but sound alike or look similar,” Gary King, a political scientist, said in his 2013 study on Chinese censorship. For example, a nonsensical phrase such as “eye field” looks similar in Chinese to the characters meaning “liberty.”

A political image manipulation can transform innocuous phrases such as “giant yellow duck” into a commonly understood metaphor for the tanks at Tiananmen Square.

“Chinese Internet users have mastered the use of irony as protest,” Jason Ng wrote in his book Blocked on Weibo. “Emphatically pro-government comments online such as ‘Socialism is good’ and ‘I have been represented by my local official’ are often meant to be satirical.”

This is where human censors come in. The company employs hundreds of people to delete posts that have slipped past the filters. Forbidden messages don’t live long after being posted. Researchers have found that nearly 30 percent are gone within 5-30 minutes and 90 percent are gone within 24 hours. The censors take an especially dim view of posts that go viral or promote any type of collective action.

An increasingly sophisticated competition of sorts has arisen, pitting cutting-edge digital censors and clever human ones against users who deploy countermeasures such as typographic tricks and arcane metaphors.

One of these countermeasures takes advantage of the fact that computers aren’t very good at understanding photographs and other images. Weibo messages with innocuous text but taboo political imagery -- the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, for example, or photos of disgraced politicians -- pass by the automated algorithms unnoticed, only to be deleted later by the human censors.

We’ve published the deleted images themselves, as well as a translation of some of the text users posted with them. We’ve also tried to convey the meaning behind each picture, explaining Chinese cultural references, identifying public figures and deciphering subtle political points.

In tracking images censored from our sample of 100 Weibo accounts, we found that they fell into roughly 10 conceptual categories representing a wide sample of “unharmonious” culture. They provide a window into the Chinese elite’s self-image and its fears, as well as a lens through which to understand China’s vast system of censorship.

We contacted Sina for a response to our story, but they did not respond to us in time for publication.

Some of the research for this investigation was conducted in collaboration with a team at the Spatial Information Design Lab and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, at Columbia University. The Columbia project, called “Jumping the Great Firewall,” uses a similar methodology and was pursued in partnership with the Pen American Center and Thomson Reuters.

If you work as a Weibo censor and are willing to speak to ProPublica about your experiences, please contact us at Here’s our PGP key.

What a cheap propaganda muckrake. I just spent a couple of hours reading comments on Swedish papers like SVD for instance, a moderate middle of the road serious national publication. I found on one article around 25 posts that were censored and deleted. Obviously because they had been insulting to someone, provocations to cause disorder, or racial attacks. This is no different in China. Posts that aim to cause public disorder, are insulting, racial, discrimination, spread rumors, and attack groups are removed in almost any country. Sweden is recognized as have one of the best freedom of expression in the world. This is in my opinion just cheap anti Kina propaganda. As long term resident of China, born in Europe, I find China having one of the best freedom of expressions in the world today.

Rolf Krohna- Do you think this might be in large part due to the fact that you ARE Swedish/European…? I also live in China and really don’t understand how you could argue that China has “one of the best freedom of expressions IN THE WORLD”. I have a feeling a lot of Chinese citizens would strongly disagree with you on that.

I have lived in 7 countries, and I came to China in the late 70-s, just when it started to open up, and I do think China as of today has great freedom of expression. I don’t think there is a single country that is best, just different, but China come high up on the list, and I have experienced countries as Eastern Germany and Soviet union. Of course, as everywhere, there are rules how you can express yourself, where and when, how and to who. I don’t know if you can read Chinese, but if you can, start following some of the local citizen media, because it is there the freedom of expression is exercised, not through the state media or the journalists. The limits, as in most places, goes at violence, persecution, provocation, insulting people, or spreading false information and rumors, and I agree with such limitation. I like a peaceful and respectful society. As an example, recently near me there was a street incident, just a heated argument. People just hauled out the smartphone, took pictures, commented, and uploaded to the web. It was public with comments and opinions within three minutes. Of course, there are always people disagreeing, especially those who want violent revolutions and upheavals. China had enough of that.

Frank Butterfield

Nov. 15, 2013, 7:49 a.m.

Rolf—Is there a difference, in your mind, to a website moderating its own content according to its own rules (such as they may be) and a website moderating its own content in order to maintain favor with a government regime?

In the case I mentioned, Swedish SVD, it is not moderating its own content, but it is done by a separate independent company. The framework is here set by that company, by the government, and by the courts over time. In other words, content is here moderated to maintain favor in the government ideology, partly via the courts. There is no totally free word. Of historical reason China works differently. Citizen media has had an explosive recent development, and the functioning court system is only a little over a decade old. Here is a separate public department and it is not constantly monitoring every citizen media, as is done in Sweden, but act after complaint, or monitor specific person known to overstep frequently, using named minders. In a recent case in Sweden a commentator had used the derogative expression “financejew” and attributed that to a named person. He was convicted in court to a hefty fine. In China he would have been contacted, asked to remove the offending statement and apologize. If he done so, that would have been the end of the matter. China would only act against repeat offenders, people who refuse to listen. Another stark difference, in Sweden these moderators are anonymous and uncontactable. In China they have given me both their name and personal mobile phone if I wanted to talk about something. The moderating in China aims to maintain a peaceful and harmonious society, without provocations, not a specific ideology as in the past. This has huge public support, China had enough of conflicts and suffering resulting from provocations.

Frank Butterfield

Nov. 15, 2013, 8:33 a.m.

Rolf—Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.  I feel quite sure the author of this article would very much love to hear more about your side of this story.  Perhaps you could send the specific details of your encounters with Chinese internet moderators, including names and mobile phone numbers, to the email address posted at the end of this story?  I look forward to reading the follow-up article.

It was about five years ago and unfortunately I have lost the information, but the unfolding events was as this. I was called up by this guy who in moderate and friendly, almost apologetic tone, told me I had “upset the Chinese government”, all in near perfect Australian English.  So what had I done, I asked. Well, I had published an article in an Australian paper that was untrue, and highly defaming of China. I asked for the web address, and I had to agree, it was real low level dirt slinging of the worst kind, but I had not been involved. We discussed it and he agreed he made a mistake, and gave me his name and mobile phone if I wanted to call back. I don’t say China is perfect, and it is in rapid change, but personally I certainly like the direction and modus operandi. Note the difference, in Sweden the courts are intermediates in this sort of case, and they act decisively and finally and punish as they se fit under the framework of government legislation, and the courts are mostly, not 100%, independent of the government. In China it is a government department acting directly, no independent courts involved, but in a soft-soft negotiating approach.

Frank Butterfield

Nov. 15, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

Rolf—Thanks again for sharing your anecdotal experience.

Interesting discussion but I am always concerned when anyone, particularly government agencies, are given free reign to suppress “untrue information”.  Yielding complete control in this arena always leads to abuse of this power in am country not just China

I’m curious if this is actually news to anybody.  “May 35th” was sufficiently well-known to be a Jeopardy question, after all…

It strikes me as an odd topic for an article, because there are other quasi-related issues that seem well outside the interests of the article, but may be more important.

For example, the capability to monitor large chunks of the Internet isn’t available from any vendor outside of the United States and western Europe.  Since we know such a thing is happening, why don’t we know who’s making money off of it?  And if we know that, does it connect with other surveillance and censorship programs?

Also, China appears to be trying to improve its image.  While they’ve been discussing a more permissive birth rate, there have been two TED talks released (that I’ve seen) talking about how much better the Chinese government is for unclean poor people who won’t vote anyway (as if voting is all there is to governance) than democracy.  Is there any relationship between the image they’re trying to present to the world of a somehow-cheaper alternative to the decadent west and what they’re censoring?

And how do their Internet warriors figure into this, the so-called “50 Cent Party,” trying to sway the direction of online conversation to one less critical of their government?

I suspect Rolf is a 50-cent poster. China is among the worst countries when it comes to Press Freedom index, and is not recognized as a “free” country. I’m sure his experience differs greatly than those of human rights lawyers who were left handicapped and homeless, or from the recent young man who was arrested after accusing local official of throwing someone off the building of a karaoke club. That he dares compare CCP’s suppression of expression to modest and reasonable limits in other parts of the world is laughable.

I am English but enjoy Mandarin and have a weibo account.

I found this ‘research’ typical of any mainstream service be it New York Times Online, Twitter, Facebook or Weibo they all get censored.

This whole article smells like a American propaganda piece.

I have even googled banned words on china search engine / google and found them not to be blocked.

It would be great to see propublica spend its hard earned money ‘investigating’ the biggest story of the last 10 years and thats the Edward Snowden leaks regarding NSA / GCHQ spying on citizens and fellow countries.

abinico warez

Nov. 15, 2013, 5:14 p.m.

Big deal, like as if there’s no censorship in western world. Try telling people about homosexual use of children and you’ll get slammed, banged, and censored faster than Hillary can spin another lie. It happened to me - been banned from Huff Post for life, not that I care - Huff Post is a fag infested wormhole.

C Xu, you are right when it comes to the Press Freedom Index. In China it is not considered that freedom of expression should be the monopolistic sole right of a small group called journalists. Freedom of expression is to belong to everyone, and they can exercise that without the filter of political biased journalists. “Those human rights lawyers” belong to a small populists group of lawyers that want lawyers to be able to act like in the USA for instance, so they can act as gatekeepers to the courts and “clip the ticket” and get filthy rich on other peoples disasters. The public and the government in China disagree on the cunning plan. “To throw someone off a building” sounds like on of these defaming rumor spreading attempts, or maybe an extortion attempt. If he has a complaint, go to the police and present the evidence. China banned certain access to Google, Facebook, and twitter to prevent NSA and CIA to spy on China’s residents. I wish other countries would care the same way for their people. You can easily reach them via proxies, but then the information become worthless for the species. I can reach all Google search engines anywhere in the world without a proxy. Google is now so heavily censored by Google itself today that I found it useless. Use Duckduckgo, Startpage, Ixquick, or Yandex. Baidu is one of the best, but unfortunately mostly in chinese.

Dexter Ullith

Nov. 16, 2013, 8:26 a.m.

@R. Krona - I live in China. I’m currently sitting in my Beijing apartment and I know there are tons of things I had better not say anywhere, ever. I see guards everyday as I walk to work watchfully eyeing anyone who comes by a bridge to make sure they don’t unfurl any particular messages they don’t want to hear lest they get “asked out for tea” when they get home.

I thought ProPublica was moderated??? If the internet trolls can’t even be escaped from on a site like this then I hereby resign from the internet all together. Just when the Bat Kid story had me all warm and fuzzy about humanity I get brought down with the quickness.

Dexter, I side with the police, but not for the reason you may think. There are some common misconceptions about “freedom of expression”. One is that only journalists and the media have that right. I disagree. Another is that those who exercise that freedom also have a right to force anyone to receive, read, understand and follow that expression and message. I disagree on that too, If I move in the “public room”, I mean the common areas in our society as roads and parks, it is my unfettered right not to have all these messages under “freedom of expression” rammed down my throat, as placards and banderols thrown in my face, people obstructing my way to make me read and hear their message, or preachers shouting me down on the street corners, irrespectively if the message is ideological, religious, political, commercial or just plain nonsense. I expect the police to protect me as they protect me against robbers and muggers. There are plenty of avenues to make your message available to others, we are using one here, so please Amy, let Dexter have his say. You don’t have to read it or agree with him.

There are actually rules in China against spreading rumors and untrue information. Western countries have similar rules, but of some reason those rules don’t seem to apply to some journalists. John, we know via Snowden who’s making money off snooping, Microsoft, Google, etc are handsomely paid for handing over our lives.

And Dexter, if you like warn and fuzzy stories, China may be your place to look. When the big earthquake happened some years ago, motorcycle couriers ran shuttle with food, when they got too tired to drive they slept on the road, then carried on, gas station owners tore up the bills, company owners closed the company, and offered staff to go to the earthquake zone to help – on full pay, everyone I know chipped in financially, sent clothes and shoes, every medical doctor and nurse that could be freed up went there to help – unpaid. ETC. That is the real China.

China has one of the worst records of censorship and restriction of freedom of speech of any countries in the world. Anyone who says any different is lying or simply uneducated. Banning religious texts, monitoring internet connections, banning porn, the ‘great firewall of china’, arresting journalists, immense political propaganda, blocking youtube, etc.

The list goes on and on and on and on. Seriously, how anyone could defend such a disgusting display of speech restriction is beyond me.

You have been to close to American propaganda too long. I came here 1978, and I am living here, shouldn’t I know anything. No true religious text are banned, not even Pastafarians, I often meet Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and so on and all you have to do is to go to the nearest bookstore or send for it from overseas, and the local government just built two wonderful churches in classic style here, “monitoring Internet”, please read about Snowden, no mass monitoring in China, but they do monitor known troublemakers and seditionists, “banning porn”, yes gross and violent porn and child porn are banned, I am just too happy about that, “great firewall of china” is locking out CIA and NSA snoops, I wish all countries would care for their residents that way, “arresting journalists”, I am a citizen journalist, and I have never heard of it, “immense political propaganda” hmmmm, just wonder where it is hiding because I have never seen any, I see immensely more political propaganda in the US,  blocking youtube”, yes-because of the gross violence there. Come and see for yourself if you don’t believe me.

James Montgomery

Nov. 17, 2013, 6:58 a.m.

I find the pro-Chinese government/Communist Party posts here appalling. Apologism for dictatorship, basically, just because the PRC is currently now the “anti-West.” I think people like this have a broken moral compass. I have nothing to say to such unthinking people, except that I think your worldviews are lamentable. I hope you never have to live under a quasi-totalitarian regime such as exists in China. Although, if you really did experience the suffocating reality of such a system, your views would certainly change.

James, then I suggest also to you to come and develop your own impression. The whole communist ideology, for that sake all ideology based activities and politics, is gone since long. China is today largely driven on an issue by issue basis from grassroots level. As I said, I came the first time to China 1978, have lived and worked in many nations and under many regimes, including US, The Soviet and Eastern Germany, all which a grew to dislike. The last ten years I am permanent, with family and own home in China, by my own choice, and I have really a lot to compare with. I find that even the US today act more like the past dictatorships, heavily armed police, have a “lebensraum” and “anschluss” philosophy, and violence. Here the police go unarmed, and they seldom even bother to patrol, nothing happens. I am not saying it is heaven, but it is certainly not too bad at all.

Just thought of something else here. The author writes “5 percent—were deleted by censors”. Pretty remarkable that you can sit in the USA and know who deleted comments. I just deleted a couple of my own as they had become irrelevant. This is pretty normal here, you put something out, and a few days later you take the comment down and make another. I can understand that power hungry western journalists don’t like China and do everything they can to sling dirt on China. Here freedom of expression belongs to the common man, and journalists can not establish themselves as a power wielding middle man monopolistic cartel who controls the information flow. .

Rolf - du är ju helt sjuk i huvudet.

To translate Greger for the benefit of others, “You are complete sick in your head”, At least I know what I am talking about, because I have the experience on location, location here not only China, and secondly, what competence and qualification do you have to make that judgment. There is something else here that starts to feel frightening and eerie. One of my great interests is history, especially China, and how the National Socialism in Germany developed to become the disaster we well know of.  How could the peaceful beer loving German people become so mislead. It was not too complex once you managed to get your head around it (Australia expression), but what is so frightening and eerie is that just this debate signal that history may repeat itself, but this time not in Germany. Lets hope I am wrong.

So, to summarize:

1) “Rolf” defends the Chinese record of freedom of expression, claiming China has “one of the best freedom of expressions in the world”.  Others point out how ludicrous this claim is.

2) “Rolf” then claims Chinese freedom of expression is only limited if that expression involves “persecution, provocation, insulting people, or spreading false information and rumors”, apparently not aware that any political protest at all would be considered “provocation” by those in power.

3) “Rolf” tries to claim an equivalence between a website cleaning up troll comments on a post, and the Chinese government censors monitoring and deleting any blog, internet forum, or website items they find objectionable.

4) “Rolf” claims that Western journalists and media are the only ones who have freedom of expression, not ordinary citizens.  Sorry, “Rolf”, but all Westerners have freedom of expression.  We can, and do, protest government policies and corrupt politicians by holding public protests, as well as writing and publishing “provocative” opinions without fear of reprisal.  Anyone can start their own blog and express any political opinion at all - no censorship.

5) “Rolf” fails the Godwin’s Law test by implying another Hitler will arise somehow in the West. 

In reality, “Rolf” is almost certainly a paid 50-cent party member.  Good job getting your coin for every comment.  Keep it up, just be sure to never mention the slaughter in Tiananmen Square, or you might just hear a knock on your door.

I agree.  In spite of “Rolf”‘s government-sponsored posts, evaluating censored data can provide interesting insight into any government’s thinking and concerns - be it China, the US, Russia, etc.  Rolf’s posts themselves are somewhat telling.  Nicaragua had a similar policy of censoring articles in the 80’s after the fall of Samoza.  However, their government censors weren’t the brightest bulbs in the box, lining out sentences, words, etc that they found objectionable.  The irony was that La Prensa (the opposition newspaper) was allowed to post the “censored” pages in an area that happened to be available to the public.  Needless to say, hundreds of people interested in the interesting (ie censored) news would show up daily to read mostly the lined out portions of the articles.

Likewise, knowing who government agencies are watching with interest can provide a window into their thinking as in some of the revelations about the NSA “oversight” programs.  I enjoyed this piece and would find studies on other governments.

Just occurred to me, what is the difference in moderating and censoring? Probably “propaganda”. Irrespectively if it is done by a public department as in China that is under public constant scrutiny and operates in the open, or by a combination of government departments, like the ombudsmen and the courts or private companies, the government of the day sets the framework and the rules, if not by instructions and regulations so by legislation. In the end, the individual can’t just say anything but has to stay within that framework, which is different depending on the country and timing. And by the way Brad, I am not working for any government, can I question if you are a NSA agent. And Robert, I am not defending the record of China, but I am explaining the present, and have you ever tried to get your “expression” through the journalist barricades in the west. It is a bit hard, but we do have the web now, and what I said was that a monopolistic cartel of journalists tries to claim that sole right, not that they have it exclusively any longer. They don’t have it as a totalitarian privilege any longer. About the Tiananmen incident. We know what happened today, and it was a major F-up by all parties, the government, the student and the military. Layers of mistakes. 241 people died. Now would you please do a comparison with the Iraqi incident, the US invasion of Iraq, where 245,000 people died, continue with Vietnam, and add terrorism by drones. I am looking forward to the results.

Why compare to things not related to government censorship and repression of their own citizens?  It’s not a scoreboard (though feel free to do a comparison with the 45 million killed by Mao).  Basically, you deny Chinese government censorship, and you lie so obviously, it’s laughable.

Let’s do that comparison. Mao did not kill anyone, and I think it is highly relevant to compare to more recent figures as the 245,000 killed in Iraq as a direct result of the US invasion. However, China tried to implement western democracy with freedom of expression in1912, it became a monumental failure, the communist tried to replace it with an ideologically based regime, and also that became a disaster. Maybe 100 million died during that time in China, but largely by a combination of natural disasters, starvation, mismanagement, and incompetence. Not by the hand of foreign or domestic invaders or despots. During the last part of the communist regime, Mao became old and dement in Alzheimer’s, and a centralized dictatorship with censorship started to build, at his passing away that changed. Censorship is gone today, but just as in this debate or anywhere else there is moderation. I live here, associate frequently with media and publishers, write myself and publish, so I just wonder where that “censorship and repression” is hiding, before you “shoot off your mouth” from a foreign place with no insight in the case, why not come here and look for yourself. Just wonder how the people in the US are feeling about the financial, and other “repression” there, masked as “security” and “war against terrorism”.

Every country has censorship, manipulation and disinformation. The same as every household and every individual in existence. People manipulate in every way. People twist religion, glorify murder, make wrongs seem right and try to act like they proved the unprovable. There actually needs to be more censorship. I want a computer that censors everything the governments push out.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Dragnets: Tracking Censorship and Surveillance

ProPublica investigates the threats to privacy in an era of cellphones, data mining and cyberwar.

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