Friday, August 03, 2012

Twitter Olympics experiences hurdles in China

It may have been dubbed the Twitter Olympics in the west [Sky], but in China, where Twitter is banned, the Chinese are confined to their own homegrown and highly censored versions of the social networking site.

Knitting scarves

Micro-blogging sites, called "Weibo" in Chinese, have exploded in China since one of the country's biggest web portals, Sina, launched its Twitter-like service in 2009, a year after the Beijing Olympics.

There are now several Weibo style sites offering an estimated online population of 250 million the ability to ‘tweet’ their opinions on a wide range of subjects.

Tweeting, often referred to as knitting a scarf [织围脖 - zhī wéibó] in Chinese, has become increasingly popular [TheMyndset].

But while the service has served to bring corruption to the fore or highlight incidents of injustice, tweets are monitored by an army of censors who delete anything deemed ‘inappropriate’ or ‘subversive’.

Deleted tweets

After Team China captured the top prize in men's gymnastics, one member, Feng Zhe, a prolific poster on Sina Weibo with almost two million followers, received more than just heartfelt congratulations.

A one-line message he posted in October 2010 was dug up, generating thousands of retweets and comments within hours. The post teased, "The reason you're not gay is because you haven't met the man who can capture your heart."

While some thought it was just Feng being his facetious self, the overwhelming response appeared to hail a rare coming out for gay Chinese athletes. It was not long before the post disappeared from Feng's public feed [CNN].

Heavy censorship

Weibos are heavily censored. Sina, for example, employs around 1,000 people who sift through the millions of digital messages, catching sensitive material that keyword filters might miss and delete it. It is not unusual for whole accounts to be deleted.

The government requires Sina and other Internet companies to do this in-house, and at their own cost, under threat of fines and shutdowns if they fail.

In addition the government too has an army of Internet police, believed to number tens of thousands, who patrol the Web and its total population in China of 485 million. They even boast a mascot, a pair of cartoon police officers named Jingjing and Chacha, a play on the Mandarin word for police ‘jingcha’ [警察].

Controversial debates

So far the debate concerning badminton players Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang who were disqualified for throwing matches have shown no signs of being censored. This may be partly due to the fact that comments are generally in support of the athletes and follow a nationalistic line. The row has provoked strong reactions on China’s Internet forums, with millions of online comments posted in support of the Chinese duo. “How could they say this is cheating? It’s the rules that are not right!” said one post from Henan [DailyGuideGhana]. However, should the issue become too embarrassing for the country such commentary would be swiftly consigned to the digital bin.

UK Internet trolls

It is not just China that is concerned over messages posted on microblogs however. After Tom Daley failed in his bid for an Olympic medal in the diving event he was subjected to a series of malicious attacks from Internet trolls. The comments even led to an arrest [Guardian].

A number of other athletes have also been the victim of abuse. The 18-year-old weightlifting star Zoe Smith "stuck two fingers up" to her Internet critics on Monday when she lifted a British record-breaking 121kg. In a blogpost Smith had earlier confronted one Twitter user in a blogpost who said women weightlifters are "probably all lesbians and look like blokes".

Smith responded saying, "I love using Twitter. I am pretty much known as the athlete who sits there and pretty much tweets in between her clean and jerk. Some people just abuse it... Just because, at the moment perhaps while we are competing they think we are public figures, they think they can stay as faceless people who would say these things."

Swimmer Rebecca Adlington, who won bronze in the women's 400m freestyle final on Sunday, has spoken out about being taunted on Twitter [Daily Mail / Guardian]. 

The abuse has not only been confined to anonymous Internet trolls. Cameroon coach Enow Ngachu was criticised for calling their South American opponents overweight [Daily Mail].

In another instance the Melbourne Herald Sun was slammed after it suggested swimmer Leisel Jones's physique less than perfect [OpposingViews] The furore prompted a flood of complaints and the Australian sports minister to demand the paper apologise [YouTube].

While there is a case for free speech, something not respected in China, there is also a case for respect. Ignoring the latter gives those who seek tighter restrictions and censorship the excuse to implement greater controls.

See also: tvnewswatch: China's MIIT seeks to tighten censorship / tvnewswatch: Freegate fails as China's censorship tightens / tvnewswatch: When China censored Premier Wen

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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