It’s no surprise to find a story about censorship coming out of China. In attempts to control information and sentiment, China is one of the strictest countries to monitor and block websites, keywords and networks.

Blocking a particular site or network is a heavy-handed way of stopping citizens from accessing information, but to keep out of trouble with government rules, Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, has found a more subtle way of making topics ‘disappear’.

On Tech In Asia this morning, C.Custer makes the interesting observation that political posts on Sina are not so much being blocked, but smothered to obscure dissenting comments.

The story is related to news that blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who sought shelter at the US Embassy in Beijing to avoid house arrest, has left the embassy and that Xinhua state media in China is saying that he ‘left of his own volition‘.  Chen is said to be ‘happy’ and leaving of his own volition sounds nice and free right?

Well, take into account that US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is in town for high-level talks on trade and Syria and you can probably see why this would be a discussion point on Chinese micro-blogs.  Except it isn’t.

A quick search on Twitter for the term #Chen and ‘of his own volition‘ from my seat in London shows that there’s a truck-load of tweets and comment about ‘cloak and dagger diplomacy’ and other thoughts on Chen’s movement to a hospital in Beijing. But over on Sina, Custer says that posts about Chen stopped at around 16:50 local time, shortly after the news arrived on Xinhua.

Custer explains that the posts were not exactly blocked, but smothered. By this he means that certain topics are ‘played down’ on the social site. Custer says,

People can still make posts using the term, so they don’t feel their voice is being censored, and searches aren’t actually blocked so they aren’t reminded discussion is being censored, but public discussion is being hidden from them just the same. It’s quite clever, in an insidious sort of way.

Smart but sinister

We hate to say it, but it is indeed pretty smart. When users feel that they have less liberty to post what they like, they’ll slow down or stop posting. But if your update appears to arrive as you would hope, you’re less likely to notice that it’s not showing up in search.

There are ways that a different use of language can help to get around smothering. In this case, the phrase ‘of his own volition’ was the term in question and that did manage to slip through the Sina net by being written in traditional Chinese as opposed to the simplified version.

It’s a known tactic in other languages to cheat a system like this by adding numerals to replace letters or changing a spelling on purpose. Though this works for now on Sina, the service does not want to be closed down and so no doubt it’s ‘seek and make unsearchable’ algorithm will probably get wise to the tricks and add multiple terms each time.