A Reckoning for Weibo
Friday, March 16, 2012 | By: Ginger Huang (黄原竟)
It’s 10 p.m. in a bar near the Chaoyang Park area of Beijing. Two Chinese friends are discussing shimingzhi (实名制, real-name registration), the impending regulation that will require users of all China’s major microblog services to register with their real names and identification details.
“I won’t stop using microblogs after shimingzhi because they’re already an important part of my life,” says Dongyue, a Beijing-based diamond saleswoman. “I use Weibo because it’s like a window into a library—you just never know which books will open or the knowledge they will contain. It’s also a way I can make sure my opinions are heard, so I can represent myself rather than let others speak in my name.”
“Yeah?” responds Ray Zhao, a 37-year-old public relations professional. “There’ll be no point after shimingzhi; no one will have anything interesting to say, or those who do will be too cautious to post it. Weibo’s heyday is over.”
Conversations like this have been served up in bars and online forums all over China since December of last year, when the Beijing government released its “Regulations for the Development and Management of Microblogs in Beijing.” The upshot was that in three months, users of most Chinese microblogs would have to submit their real names and ID numbers. While they will still be able to post under nicknames, the microblog host companies will have access to their real registration data. This will affect all the major microblog hosts, including Sina, NetEase, Sohu and Tencent, encompassing more than 500 million microbloggers.
On February 7, 2012, a last warning was issued to users who had so far turned a deaf ear to the new rules or hoped their implementation might be postponed indefinitely. March 16 was set as the deadline, after which microblog users who hadn’t registered with their real names would not be able to post new messages. They’d still be able to sign in, but would only be allowed to browse other people’s posts.
But a quick scan of some posts on Weibo today suggest the new rules may be encountering some teething trouble. “After the implementation of real-name registration, I’m wondering if the number of Weibo users will fall, and to what extent?” one poster asked, prompting a wave of responses, most of which indicate that those who still have not submitted their real names can continue to post freely. “I haven’t found anything abnormal. I didn’t register with my real name, but I can still post a comment, at least for now,” one replied. “Obligatory real-name registration is doomed to fail. There should be a more flexible way to gradually reach the goal,” said another.
Microblogging is Born
Whether they are immediately rigorously enforced or not, the rules are regarded as a sea-change for microblogging culture in China, which has gone through many stages of evolution since the advent of Twitter in 2006. At the time, Chinese microbloggers circulated a popular joke that captured the excitement the service triggered before it was blocked here in summer 2009: “Only two things wake me up in the middle of the night: that I forgot to pee before bed, or that I forgot to Twitter before bed.”
But Twitter was not initially alone in the Chinese microblogging sphere. In 2007, Fanfou, the first Chinese version of the service, was created by the IT idealist Wang Xing, and quickly gathered a million loyal users. However, pioneers are notable for their tendency to be shot in the back, and Fanfou was no different. It fell victim to the initial wave of teething troubles that beset microblogs in China, and was closed down for 16 months at the same time as Twitter.
How People Use Weibo: From Celebrity Gawking to Internet Stalking
While people all over the world (including us!) now use microblogs to read and browse news, follow celebrities or upload photos of their dinner, China’s services have developed their own unique characteristics. Sharing entertainment and opinions is easier to do on Chinese services than counterparts like Twitter because they allow users to respond to each other’s posts and start conversations, as well as share pictures, videos and other multimedia. As such, Sina’s Weibo forged ahead with a strategy focused on attracting fans to its celebrity posters. Tencent, meanwhile, responded by leveraging its massive base of QQ users to propel its own Weibo service.
On Sina’s Weibo, what Twitter would term “followers” are defined instead as “fans” (粉丝 fěnsī) and the top 10 most-followed microbloggers are permanently celebrities. Actress Yao Chen, for example, has been China’s leading microblogger for over two years. When she posted a photo of her cat gazing out of the window, it was forwarded 5,500 times and garnered nearly 4,000 comments. Writer and rally car racer Han Han posted a single word—“hey (喂 wèi)”—and it received 11,000 comments. Yet Yao Chen and Han Han are also notable for their willingness to engage in social issues, and help generate debate and lobby for change.
Those who follow these debates are generally regarded as “the silent majority.” The celebrities connect Sina Weibo users under one umbrella, but most use the service to qianshui (潜水, browse other people’s microblogs without commenting) and weiguan (围观, watch as a crowd of bystanders), instead of being active posters. Zhang Ming (张鸣), a historian known for being outspoken and cynical, wrote on his own Tencent Weibo microblog: “The goal of Sina Weibo is to set up a merry stage for the rich and the famous… a stage as such has no vitality.” He also predicts that “the new regulations are a slow death for microblogs, or they will change them into something harmless that offers nothing other than entertainment.”
Abroad, Weibo has gained notoriety for exactly the kind of function Zhang feels is under threat: tracking and debating current events, particularly those relating to perceived social injustice. Yao Jiaxin, a university student who ran over a cyclist and then stabbed her to death out of fear she had remembered his plate number, was sentenced to death for the crime after a massive public outcry on Weibo. The Wenzhou train crash was also covered in intensive detail by microbloggers, with 27 million posts covering the disaster from the moment of impact onwards; some of these even resulted in officials admitting mistakes and reversing statements they had made in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
But Weibo’s versatility and scale have also left it open to abuse. While much of the news posted is valid, there have been numerous instances of “false rumors” (假新闻 jiǎ xīnwén), most recently a viral post claiming that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been killed by assassins in Beijing. As one internet expert put it on “Thoughtful China,” an online video series focused on all things related to the Chinese internet, Weibo is “like a massive karaoke room, great for gossip, but bad for news.”
One case in particular illustrates the dichotomy between Weibo’s usefulness as a tool for social change, and the problems that emerge when such a service is left unregulated. Wu Ying, once China’s sixth-richest woman, was sentenced to death at a Chinese high court in January for “fraudulent fundraising,” after collecting as much as RMB770 million from investors and using the money to purchase cars and real estate, as well as pay off personal debt. Yet there was a groundswell of opinion on Weibo that the sentence was too harsh. “Whether Wu Ying gets to live or not is everyone’s concern… when the next generation looks back at this case, will they see us speaking out, or will they see us silent?” Teng Biao, a Beijing-based law expert, wrote on his blog. Prominent economist Mao Yushi, who has a hefty 4,350,000 followers on Tencent Weibo, also called for the sentence to be reviewed, while the phrase “To save Wu Ying is to save ourselves” has become a Weibo slogan. At the time of writing, Wu Ying is still waiting to see if the Supreme Court will lighten her sentence, but that didn’t stop a Weibo rumor stating that she had been spared the death penalty from gaining serious traction amongst netizens.
Justifications for the Regulations
The shimingzhi regulations call for microblog hosts to “contribute to the construction of a harmonious socialist society,” and cracking down on false rumors is one part of that agenda. Another is the elimination of the huge numbers of fake accounts, known as “zombie fans” (假新闻 jiǎ xīnwén) that exist on all forms of Weibo. Just how many fake accounts are out there is almost impossible to determine, but a third of any given celebrity’s followers on Sina Weibo have zero followers themselves, suggesting that they are zombies. This trend is driven by advertisers eager to capitalize on the popularity of some microbloggers by posting spam adverts as comments on their posts. An entire secondary economy churns behind the scenes, with agencies like “Micro Spread” charging advertisers RMB0.3-1 per zombie ad post, depending on the popularity of the microblogger. According to the Southern Weekly newspaper, almost all the top 100 most popular non-celebrity microblogs hosted by Sina belong to microblog marketing companies.
Moreover, if you search for “microblog fans” on Taobao, hundreds of stores will come up. All of the sellers claim to “sell real fans, not zombies!” The stores also assure potential buyers that “if your fans get killed by Sina, we’ll compensate you with new ones.” The going rate is RMB2-4 for 1,000 fans, usually with an extra 100 fans thrown in for free. This zombie plague causes havoc all over Weibo, particularly among serious microbloggers who use the service to host discussions. IT celebrity Kai-Fu Lee claimed he had one million zombie fans. “I have enough zombies to wage a war against plants,” he joked, referring to the popular online game “Plants vs. Zombies.” In any case, posters today found little had changed after the supposed implementation of the regulations: “This is the first day of real-name registration. Just now as I posted one weibo, six false advertising messages jumped out. I thought that real-name registration would put an end to this kind of stuff!”
Among industry experts, there is an overriding feeling that shimingzhi will be positive for the long-term health of Weibo. “It’s going to serve to clean out a bit of spam, and this will enhance the experience for core users,” said Matt Lovett, an online marketing expert and partner at online marketing consultancy Pop Sigma. Lovett also acknowledges that Weibo user numbers are going to take a hit as a result of the change, and not just because of a drop-off in corpse accounts. Already, newly registered accounts at Sina Weibo have fallen precipitously, with the number of real-name registrations for January coming in at about 3 million, much lower than the 20 million or so registrations during the peak months of 2011.
On his DigiCha blog, China internet expert Bill Bishop ascribes three possible reasons to the drop-off: millions of the new accounts were actually zombies and shimingzhi has effectively ended their proliferation; the service had already reached saturation point in terms of new users; and, most worryingly, new users were being put off by the move to real-name registration.
The truth is likely a mixture of all three factors, but users have long expressed their opposition to shimingzhi and may well be voting with their feet. In numerous polls, including one conducted on our own website, the percentage of people who vote against shimingzhi is usually over 80 percent. Another Sina Weibo poll of 3,000 people indicated that one-third of respondents would cease microblogging entirely after the change.
Sina itself is certainly concerned. CEO Charles Chao said that the new rules will damage the microblogging platform. “We can’t guarantee that stricter policies won’t appear later on. This will impact the growth of our user base and negatively affect user activity,” he said, adding that since the Beijing government implemented the rules, over 40 percent of new users have failed to pass identity verification.
The outpouring of discontent over shimingzhi comes as no surprise. In 2010, Baidu launched Shuoba, a Chinese social network that required people to register with real names and ID numbers, but netizens balked at the idea and Shouba was shut down less than a year after launching.
Wang Lihong, a 22-year-old girl from Hebei Province, agrees that real-name registration will keep a lid on vicious attacks by “zombie fans,” but she is afraid the new rule will dampen netizens’ enthusiasm for voicing their opinions on sensitive topics, which is likely to diminish the popularity of the service. So far, “periods of peak activity on Sina Weibo have coincided with several hot social issues,” she says, adding that she will be more reserved when posting comments if she knows the host service can track her identity. One Weibo poster writing today echoed that sentiment: “I just received a message from Weibo Secretary and realized that real-name registration has come to me! Though I have registered with my real name, I feel repulsion for real-name registration. Why is it not acceptable for us to express opinions and even curse something unfair anonymously?”
This gets to the heart of the issue. Whether or not the real-name registration information is used by the authorities to crack down on troublemakers, the fear that they might do so will likely lead posters to self-censor. There is also serious concern over the security of the service and the host companies’ ability to keep data private. On December 21, 2011, CSDN, China’s largest online community for programmers, confirmed that about six million users’ passwords had been hacked. The next day, hackers publicized more accounts and passwords. Over just a few days, Chinese netizens witnessed the collective security collapse of almost all the big web companies—SNSs, mailboxes, gaming websites, online shopping malls and matchmaking websites. In total, hackers publicized the details of 10 million accounts, and millions of people received notice from QQ and NetEase reminding them to change their passwords.
But it’s not just a problem of hackers—outspoken commenters must also be wary of the kind of mob justice enacted through so-called “human flesh searches” (人肉搜索 rén ròu sōusuǒ), or searches for users’ personal information accomplished by collective netizen action.
Having your private data strewn all over the internet is no one’s idea of fun, but the idea is particularly worrying in China, where enterprising netizens are renowned for their ability to track down and expose perceived wrongdoers through these human flesh searches. In 2010, netizens exposed a young woman who was filmed stomping a cat to death. They achieved this entirely by using clues seen in the video and appealing to society’s wider sense of morality to single out the young woman. Irrespective of whether the targets of these searches “deserve” their punishment, people are understandably cautious about expressing themselves if their account details can be easily hacked and their identities exposed. “It’s unlikely that Sina or Tencent will ruin their brand intentionally, but you can’t guarantee—there are plenty of ill-willed hackers,” says Wang.
This fear of potential consequences will likely be the driving force behind people’s actions. “Once news of a ‘sensitive’ incident reaches a certain level say—for example, something like the 7/23 train crash—there will probably be plenty of discussion, but the tone will have changed, and the number of people participating will probably be significantly smaller,” says Charlie Custer, editor and reporter at tech news portal Penn Olson. “The people who would previously (in the pre-real-name-era) have spread that information through Weibo are going to bring it to other channels, possibly bulletin board forums, or just keep it to themselves.”
But as a famous saying goes, “Whenever there is a policy, there will be solutions (to get round it)” (上有政策，下有对策 Shàng yǒu zhèngcè, xià yǒu duìcè). There are still huge unanswered questions about how microblog hosts will process the bottleneck of registering millions of users at once. At the time of writing, we could register an account by pretending to be in the U.S. and using a fake name and passport number, as shimingzhi does not yet apply to overseas users. Whatever China’s microbloggers choose to do, though, Weibo may never be the same again. But with so many people now accustomed to airing their opinions on the service, the likelihood is they will find a way to make their voices heard.
Want to learn more about microblogging in China? Be sure to pick up our Social Media issue when it hits the stands next week! Check out a list of places to pick up a copy here and view three sample articles here.