China's 642 million Internet users are gradually abandoning the once-popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo and similar sites, as several years of crippling censorship is revealed in recent research, analysts said on Tuesday.
Researchers at three U.S. universities said in a report issued this week that Chinese censors are typically able to delete content on Sina Weibo that violates their guidelines within a few minutes of its being posted, in spite of the massive volume of tweets handled by the system.
Censors keep track of some 100 million tweets a day, using filters to detect banned keywords and backwards search mechanisms to delete all related content, the study by researchers at Rice University, Bowdoin College, and the University of New Mexico said.
In total, censors deleted around 12 percent of all tweets on Sina Weibo, the report said.
Censors will also track and monitor the accounts of users who have previously posted problematic content, the report found.
But Internet users in China said Sina Weibo is no longer where much of the interesting action lies for the country's social media users.
"The censorship of Weibo has been going on for 13 years, and it's pretty strict now," Nanjing-based netizen Zhang Haoqi told RFA.
"Pretty much everyone in my circle has moved onto WeChat now, and the people who have Weibo accounts rarely use them, because there are so many things that you can't even send," Zhang said.
He said Sina Weibo was subject to the tightest censorship, with rival Tencent Weibo a close second.
"Tencent might let you send [the same tweet] but then it would delete it after you sent it," Zhang said.
He said that while censorship exists on the WeChat smartphone messaging app, it is less efficient.
"A lot of times people are able to find a message even after it's been deleted, whereas on Weibo, once it's deleted, you can't see it anymore ... and you can't re-send it, either," he said.
Online free speech advocate Wu Bin, known online by his nickname Xiucai Jianghu, said he uses a number of different social media accounts in order to bypass ever-increasing censorship, including Sina Weibo.
Often, Internet users will find ways to work around keyword filtering, for example, by using pinyin for sensitive words like "democracy" or "protest," he said.
"Some people keep two accounts, one of which never sends out any sensitive content, while the other could get shut down at any time," Wu said.
"You have to be prepared for a rainy day."
Last week, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's central propaganda department issued a directive ordering all websites based in China to support recent moves by the country's Cyberspace Administration to clamp down on Internet service providers.
"All websites, please prominently repost positive commentary on the article 'Cyberspace Administration of China Issues Ten Points on Meetings,'" the U.S.-based China Digital Times website, which compiles leaked propaganda orders from the department, said.
The Cyberspace Administration last month issued tough new regulations setting out a series of violations of rules on web content that could prompt a summons to "drink tea," a technique traditionally employed by the state security police to warn, interrogate, and intimidate rights activists and dissidents.
Sites deemed to have published banned content—which might include "false information, pornography, and rumors"—will be obliged to send a representative to such meetings from June 1, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
A sense of fear
According to Wu, the heavy-handed censorship of Sina Weibo reflects the need of China's Internet giants to maintain good relations with the authorities, without whose blessing they would be unable to operate.
But Zhang said censorship of Weibo and other Twitter-like sites in China has extended far beyond what is necessary to protect political stability, however.
"My feeling is that they're not maintaining stability; they're creating chaos and a sense of fear," Zhang said.
"The oppressive stance has become more and more pronounced, but of course then the backlash will get more and more pronounced, beyond a certain point," he said.
"Everyone's really jumpy, because if you step out of line just a bit, they will purge you," Zhang said.
"So, the more they try to maintain stability, the less stable everything gets."
Last month, security researchers said China had deployed a powerful new cyber weapon they dubbed the "Great Cannon," which was used to launch a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on the coding site GitHub, which was hosting tools to help users circumvent online censorship.
The Great Cannon had "weaponized" unsuspecting Internet users who visited the Chinese portal Baidu, unleashing code that targeted the GitHub site in a technique first leaked by U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden, they said.
Researchers said at the time that the attack was engineered so that it couldn't have taken place without the agreement and full knowledge of the Cyberspace Administration.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.