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Chinese netizens identify the Weibo supervisor system as a source of arbitrary censorship

A screenshot from a Weibo supervisor's monthly report. The slogan says: ‘collective supervision to clean up Weibo’.

‘Why am I being censored?’ Many Chinese citizens have shared this question online after receiving a notification from administrators of online platforms including Weibo, WeChat and Douban, informing them that their content has been flagged as harmful or illegal and has been removed. Yet, no one has explained exactly why or how their materials were harmful or illegal.

Recently a ‘Weibo supervisor’ named Ji Haoyang wrote a series of posts bragging about his performance as a censor. These posts have inadvertently shed some light on the puzzle as to how and why material is sometimes identified as censorious. They have also revealed a system designed to encourage and reward censorship.

In 2017, the Weibo community management centre recruited 1,000 community members to report on harmful content. The team expanded to 2,000 in 2018. The Weibo user Ji Haoyang was one of these so-called supervisors.

On August 26, Ji boasted on his Weibo that he had successfully reported on another Weibo user, Tomo Jiangjiang, for lying about her mother’s death after receiving the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Ji claimed that Tomo’s post was a scam to attract sympathy and could have an adverse impact on the country. He further claimed that as a result of his complaint, Tomo was under police’s administrative detention and her account was suspended. 

In her post, Tomo wrote that her mother had developed a rash five days after taking her first dose of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine on March 26 and died on June 30. She then expressed her sadness and thanked those who had given her treatment advice in the past few months. 

However, Ji quoted a police source saying that Tomo’s mother was alive and at work as normal. 

In response, Tomo registered a new Weibo account and posted her mother’s death certificate and cremation papers to prove that she had not lied.

Within two hours, Ji issued an apology saying that the false allegation had occurred because he and the police had misidentified Tomo Jiangjiang's phone number. But he did not explain what had caused the mistake or how he had obtained Tomo's Weibo phone number. Instead, he insisted that his report was justified. The China Digital Times captured a screenshot of this response

,為避免該事件繼續發酵,所有博文內容評論以及轉發明日全部移交公安機關處理,明天將領取立案回報後處理事件後續,不會就這麼草草了之,我未經核實對方身份後發佈的言論明日會到公安機構道歉,但法律不會讓你隨隨便便拿個借口來污蔑國家,疫苗有沒有問題捫心自問,外媒傳播速度不差與國內,明日見分曉,該誰負法律責任誰也跑不掉

In order to avoid the incident getting out of control, I have handed over all my posts and others’ comments to the public security authorities. Tomorrow I will file the case. There will be proper follow up. Regarding my comments which were made before I verified the identity of ‘Tomo’, I will visit the police station and file my apology. But the law will not let you use an excuse to defame the country. Please ask yourself if the death is caused by the vaccine. The foreign media outlets are quickly picking up the incident and we will see the result tomorrow. No one can run away from the legal consequences.

His response has attracted a backlash. On a Weibo news thread, many expressed outrage at Ji's words:

道个歉还要扯虎皮做大旗,口口声声“疫苗”、“外媒”云云,俨然正义的化身,大量这样的人长期掌握了话语权和监督权,后果可想而知。

Ji acts like a warrior in his so-called apology. Using the ‘vaccine’ and ‘foreign media’ to justify his acts. If such people are in power, what would be the consequence?

国产疫苗打死人已经升级为“对国家有害的时政信息”了。难怪咱们听不到一丁点这方面的消息呢!净是国外的疫苗打死人的事。

So any mentioning about deaths after taking made-in-China vaccines is flagged as ‘political information that is harmful to the state’, that's why we can't see any related information. All we see is deaths after receiving foreign vaccines.

爱国已经可以成为杀人免责手段的时候说明这个国家的恶狗已经杀红了眼

When patriotism has turned into an excuse for taking someone down, the mad dogs in this country are getting out of control.

On the same day, the official ‘Weibo supervisor’ account issued an announcement saying that the platform had removed Ji from the supervisor team and banned his user account, as he had violated the community’s code of conduct by ‘posting disinformation that disrupted communication order and damaged the reputation of Weibo supervisor.’ It also clarified that Weibo supervisors do not have the power to access users’ personal information and suspend user accounts.

But many pointed out that the platform operator itself is responsible for this censorship system. China Digital Times has collected some reactions along this line:

制度产生恶人。

The system gives birth to evil people.

微博监督员给人当狗,出问题了他主人把他丢了出去

Weibo supervisors are just running dogs. Now that one performs badly, its master kicks it away.

一个季浩洋封了,还有千千万万个季浩洋前赴后继,为几块骨头做狗做的忘了人性。

One Ji Haoyang was blocked, but there are tens of thousands Ji Haoyang who are willing to give up their humanity for a few bones. 

Some dug into Ji’s Weibo timeline and found out that the Weibo supervisors are managed through a set of key performance indicators (KPIs). They have to fulfill a minimum quota, filing 500 reports per month with a 90 percent well-grounded, in order to remain on the team. Ji had been facing pressure at work since April. They believed his behaviour was driven by such a censorship system. For example, a now-removed post said:

这个微博监督员让我们看到,原来举报投诉是有任务的,他们每个人都有可能是为了完成任务的工具,有多少人的帖子是被这种为了完成任务,被莫须有的删掉了?细思极恐。这就是真正的异化了。

This Weibo Supervisor has revealed that they have to meet certain targets in filing reports. Each of them may have arbitrarily deleted others’ posts in order to complete their target. So horrible. This is alienation.

An IT blogger, whose posts in his commercial account had been hidden from public view recently, believed that the Weibo supervisor system was the cause of his problem:  

看季浩洋的所作所为,才知所谓的微博监督员还有硬性的投诉任务!难怪我10多年的微博,自6月28日开始,就不明不白地他人看下到了。近两个月内,向新浪客服投诉多次,没有得到任何解决。大家请帮我看,究竟哪一条微博不合适?我究竟中了哪个监督员的“枪”?亏我还是他的年费会员,并信用状态极好!一一!新浪微博,你对会员的服务竟然是这样的?你究竟怎么了?

I only realized that there is a report target in the Weibo supervisor system after the Ji Haoyang incident. That’s why since June 28, my Weibo, which has been open for more than ten years, has been regularly hidden from public view. I filed complaints to the Sina customer service but it did not solve my problem. Please take a look, which of my posts are harmful? Which Weibo supervisor ‘shot’ me? I am a paying customer with a very good social credit record — Sina Weibo, how can you treat your customers like this? 

According to Sina's official explanation, the relation between Sina and the supervisors is not employer and employees. Instead, they are considered as active or rewarded community members. Once someone has successfully been recruited into the team, their accounts are verified, meaning that their posts would be more visible. They could participate in Weibo’s official offline activities and could receive a bonus according to their performance.  However, if they fail to meet the minimum target, they have to leave the team. 

Weibo issues a monthly censorship report, which includes the performance of Weibo supervisors. According to its July 2021 report, Weibo blocked and deleted 244,000 harmful political posts and 9,877 user accounts through complaints. As for pornographic and illegal content, Weibo has deleted 2,771,027 user accounts and  7,700,000 posts through complaints, among which 3,740,000 were filed by Weibo supervisors. The system also automatically blocked 4,700,000 posts in July. The company will proactively submit illegal content to the police authorities to follow up on the cases. 

In July, there were 840 active Weibo supervisors; each supervisor filed an average of 4,472 censorship reports. The supervisor with the most complaints received a bonus of MB 5,000 (approximately 773 US dollars),  four awardees took the second-place prize of RMB 4,000 (618 US dollars), five awardees received the third-place prize of RMB 3,000 (464 US dollars) cash bonus, and 10 awardees won the fourth place prize of RMB 2,000 (310 US dollars).  For those who have fulfilled the minimum requirement of 500 reports per month but failed to squeeze into the 100, they only receive RMB 200 (31 US dollars).

A Weibo user applied a normal distribution model to analyse the data and estimated that the top Weibo supervisor would have to file 22,000 complaints per month, which means 700 complaints per day and 70 reports per hour in a 10-hour work schedule.

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