Weibo falls foul of China’s internet watchdog for failing to censor content

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Beijing’s internet regulator has shut down some of the most popular sections of Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, saying the social media platform had failed in its duty to censor content.

In the latest move to tighten control of online information, the Beijing office of the Cyberspace Administration of China summoned a Weibo executive on Saturday, complaining of its “serious” problems including not censoring “vulgar and pornographic” content.

Other problems on Weibo included allowing posts that discriminated against ethnic minorities and content that was not in line with what it deemed appropriate social values, the internet watchdog said in a statement.

Weibo said it had since shut down a number of services, including its list of top searches, for a week.

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China keeps a tight grip on the internet and blocks sites including Google, Facebook and Twitter and foreign news websites that might carry information that is critical of the Communist Party. It is also cracking down on VPNs, or virtual private networks, that are used to get around censorship.

Weibo, a home-grown social media network that is listed in the US, has in recent years shifted focus to less sensitive content such as social and entertainment news after Beijing silenced public policy debate on the platform, but it remains influential in China.

Celebrity news such as divorces involving movie stars Wang Baoqiang and Bai Baihe and pop singer Xue Zhiqian, or reports about singer Lu Han’s girlfriend, garner hundreds of thousands of comments and are widely circulated.

But the internet watchdog has decided to clamp down. “Sina Weibo has violated the relevant internet laws and regulations and spread illegal information. It has a serious problem in promoting the wrong values and has had an adverse influence on the internet environment,” the agency said.

It highlighted as problematic sections of the platform such as the hot topics ranking, most searched, most searched celebrities and most searched relationship topics, as well as its question-and-answer section.

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The move comes weeks after state-run Ziguangge magazine, or “Tower of Purple Light”, was listed on Weibo’s top searches ranking under the hashtag “ZiguanggeGutterOil”.

Fans of Chinese rapper PG One were allegedly behind the hashtag, retaliating against the magazine’s criticism of the musician’s lyrics and lifestyle with mockery.

It was suggested that the monthly magazine’s title sounded like the name of a restaurant chain in Beijing, with a reference to “gutter oil” added – a term to describe recycled cooking oil. State media has alleged the fans paid to have the hashtag pushed up the trending list.

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Weibo users had a mixed reaction to the weeklong shutdown.

One user was apparently unfazed: “Always so much news of celebrities breaking up or starting new relationships. How boring!”

Another wrote: “What’s all the excitement about? Is it wrong for a company to use its resources for profit? Of course there are celebrities that have been occupying the top searches ranking, that contradict the ‘core values of socialism’, but there are many other topics that could draw the attention of the authorities.”

Weibo has also been ordered to conduct a thorough review and rectify its mistakes. An executive from the Nasdaq-listed company said the sections identified by the watchdog would be closed until February 3, according to the watchdog’s statement.

The shutdown is part of a sweeping campaign to clean up the internet by removing any content deemed harmful, including pornography, violence or anything that is politically sensitive.

All kinds of platforms – from websites, mobile apps, online forums and blogs, to microblogs, social networks, instant messaging services and live broadcasts – are on the radar of the administration.

Most recently, popular news aggregator Toutiao was shut down for 24 hours in December over alleged breaches of regulations and for spreading “pornographic and vulgar content” and it has since confirmed it is hiring 2,000 content reviewers.

Entertainment news and bloggers have also been targeted, with dozens of accounts closed on social media platforms including Tencent and Weibo to “proactively promote socialist core values and develop a healthy and positive atmosphere”.

The administration has shut down more than 13,000 websites in the last three years and summoned more than 2,200 website operators for talks, closing nearly 10 million user accounts over alleged breaches of the regulations.

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