WeiboTrendsPro, a Twitter feed of English translations of posts that have been deleted from the Chinese social networking website Sina Weibo, has been created by three JMSC graduate students.
Chinese censors routinely delete online posts that are deemed by the authorities to be sensitive or subversive. The new application presents these deleted posts in a way that allows journalists and members of the public to browse through and retweet a more complete version of what the Chinese public is saying online. It also permits users to track exactly which posts Chinese censors are deleting, about fifteen minutes after they have been deleted.
“The idea behind the application is that the stories that are being censored on Weibo are the most important stories,” said Henry Williams (MJ, 2013), one of the students who developed the project.
The Twitter feed is the extension of a new web application called WeiboTrends, which was developed earlier this year by Williams and two other students in the JMSC’s first computational journalism class, Tony Yoo (MJ, 2013) and Jacky Wong (MJ, 2013). The three have been attending the Master of Journalism programme at the JMSC for the past year on data journalism scholarships funded by Google. According to Williams, the application uses deleted Weibo posts provided by the social media project led by JMSC Assistant Professor Fu King-wa.
Sina Weibo is one of many social media websites that have sprung up in China since the government blocked Twitter and Facebook at the beginning of 2009. Beijing has since continued to try to control the online activity of what is now estimated to be 600 million Internet users. Over half of those use China-based social media services like Sina Weibo, the most popular site, which sees around 100 million messages posted each day.
“We wanted to create a tool for journalists around the world to understand what is happening in China,” Wong said. “But it turned out to be more far-reaching than that. It is also helping to bring more transparency to China itself.”
Williams said that within thirty-six hours after WeiboTrends’ launch, the website received over 10,000 unique visitors. “And sixty percent of our users were from Mainland China. So people in China were going to our site to see what they couldn’t see on Weibo – the deleted posts.”
A day or two after the launch, Williams said, China began censoring WeiboTrends. And within a week, the site had been blocked entirely.
He predicted that the Internet is going to lead to the democratization of China. “It’s going to bring all these different people together, which we actually saw in visitors to our site who were from all over China, and not just from east coast urban areas.”