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Social Media and Censorship in China


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In the spirit of China Listening Month, we’ve put together an engaging whitepaper with fascinating statistics and facts around the unique social landscape in China, including the current state of China’s censorship around social networking sites, the latest trends in social media usage, and the rise of the “copycat” Chinese social media sites.

Social Media and Censorship in China

  1. 1. Breaking Down the Great Firewall SOCIAL MEDIA & CENSORSHIP IN CHINASynthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 1
  2. 2. Social Media in China: Major Trends140% of Chinese Citizens are OnlineBy the end of December 2012, China had 564 million Internet users, 50.9 million more than the year before,and representing nearly 40% of the Chinese population. The Internet penetration rate amongst thepopulation is now 39.9%, a growth of 3.8% compared with the end of 2011. The amount of time people spentonline also increased – from 18.7 hours to 20.5 hours per week on average.1 Statistics in this section come from the Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, produced by the ChinaInternet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), January 2013Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 2
  3. 3. Cellphones are the No. 1 Way to Access the Internet in ChinaChina had 388 million mobile phone Internet users in June 2012 and 422 at the end of 2012 - 64.4 millionmore than at the end of 2011. Among all Internet users, those using mobile phones to access the Webincreased from 69.3% at the end of 2011 to 74.5%. The number of people using their phone to access theInternet surpassed the number of people using desktop devices midway through 2012, making cellphones theno. 1 way to access the Web in China.Social Network & Microblogging Usage Continues to Grow309 million people used Twitter-esque microblogging platforms such as Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo andNetease Weibo in 2012, an increase of 58.73 million from the previous year. The number of users of socialnetworking websites (including Facebook and Linkedin clones such as Renren, Kaixin001, Tianji, Wealink andUshi) was 275 million by the end of December 2012, up by 12.6% over the end of 2011.Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 3
  4. 4. CensorshipMost Western Sites Are Blocked by the GovernmentThe Chinese government implemented the Golden Shield Project, commonly known as the Great Firewall ofChina or GFW, in 1998, to monitor and censor the web within the country. The Chinese Director ofInformation, Wang Chen, declared that 350 million pieces of information, including text, photos and videos,were blocked by the GWF on the Chinese web in 2010. (A 2012 study by Carnegie Mellon Universityestimated that 16% of all online conversations in China were deleted by the government in 2012.)2Access to most major social networks as well as many Western news sites is restricted or impossible unless aproxy server is used to guarantee the anonymity of the web user. The few Chinese members of Facebook areoften people that have lived or studied abroad and wish to maintain links with these communities, but inorder to connect with their fellow countrymen and women in China, it is best to create accounts on Chinesesocial networks.2 Language Technologies Institute, Carnegie Mellon UniversitySynthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 4
  5. 5. The Grass-Mud Horse LexiconSubversive lexicons have been developed by Chinese bloggers as a way to express opinions about thegovernment without falling foul of the censors. The China Digital Times has compiled a dictionary of socialmedia slang and terminology, along with their etymologies and back stories. Examples include:Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 5
  6. 6. Insights From a Self-Proclaimed Chinese Tech ActivistSynthesio interviewed a self-proclaimed Chinese tech activist, whose name shall remain anonymous. He hasbeen blogging since 2002, and has been forced in the past to open up several new blogs after others hadbeen closed by the infamous Great Fire Wall (GFW) of China.Copycats“Twitter, Facebook and similar social network sites are nipped in the bud before they become popular.Instead, there are always copycats growing up as alternatives for local Chinese people to use, e.g. Renren -Facebook, Sina Weibo - Twitter, Youku - Youtube, and so on. This is what the government loves to see.”Censoring the Chinese Internet“China has the most advanced censorship system in the world. I dont know the exact number of people thatwork for the government. We call these people the 50 Cent Army or 50 Cent Party for the amount they arepaid per deleted post. They have an automated keyword filtering system, and once any sensitive wordtriggers the system, the content will be automatically blocked. The human moderators monitor an assignedarea (boards, users or other topics). I believe they also have a behind-the-scene supporting system.”“Blogs in foreign languages are better treated. I guess the government thinks only a few people will readblogs in foreign languages. But there are exceptions, such as Danwei, an English blog popular among expatsin China, which was also blocked. For blogs hosted on foreign servers, it depends. If you are politics oriented,of course, you are dead. If you’re not, then good luck.”Getting Past the BlocksAccording to our interviewee, “Tech bloggers in China play an important role in bringing freedom of speechwhile introducing new technologies. Their natural advantages are their knowledge of the Internet and theirskills to avoid being blocked from accessing information. Third party software, SSH, VPN: they spread thetools around the internet to get over the blocks. They are usually active users on Twitter, Facebook, Youtubeand other blocked services. And some of them host their blogs overseas.”Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 6
  7. 7. False Comments“There are many Internet PR companies now working on popular forums. They are hired to create eventsmarketing for their clients, attack clients competitors, and plant other types of dubious content. Even largePR agencies will hire people to transfer ethical problems to “net gangsters”. There are many so-called ‘softarticles’ which are indirect advertisements. It is hard to differentiate between the real customer voice and thesoft articles, at least for me. The good thing, though, is that Renren, Kaixin (Facebook copycat) and Weibo(Twitter copycat) are currently not so easy to submit false information to, unlike the forums. So if you want tomonitor social media, they are a good start.”Monitoring Chinese Social Media Content and Doing Business in China“For businesses who want to use social networks in China, I think it is a good time now so long as you justfocus on business. If your activity becomes a threat for the government, you have to cooperate or stopworking in China. Google’s retreat of their servers back to Hongkong to resist the governments censorshipdemands is a good example.“I think Sina Weibo is the most successful social network right now in China (and will continue to be in thecoming years). It’s used by many celebrities and other so called opinion leaders who are a tremendousdrawcard in terms of attracting active users. And I know its founders try to balance between censorship andfreedom of speech. On one hand, they are very careful not to touch any raw nerves with the government. Onthe other hand, they enable some limited freedom of speech which I think is creating a gradual relaxation inthe level of the governments tolerance. This limited freedom lights up many users passions. There are manymeaningful social events that are spread and communicated by Weibo.” >> How Google Stood Up to the Chinese Government In January 2010, Google discovered that Gmail accounts of several Chinese activists had been hacked. Detecting an attack too sophisticated to be the work of an average web user, Google suspected it to be the work of the Chinese government, and published an article on its blog to thiseffect. The U.S. company had previously agreed to censor its search results in China. However, upon this discovery of piracy,Google decided to uphold its motto “Don’t be evil”, and announced the closure of its Chinese site. The site was closed in Marchof 2010, and people wishing to visit Google in China were redirected to a Hong Kong version of the search engine which isuncensored. The government was capable of blocking the redirection at any time. Four months later, Google managed to renewits authorization to operate in China by delaying the redirect with a page requesting a click to access However,authorities can still reverse their decision and numerous Google services, like YouTube and Blogger, continue to be prohibited.Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 7
  8. 8. The Rise of the CopycatsThe inability of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to operate in China, has opened the way fora raft of copycat platforms, each with millions of users.3 Subject to the control of Chinese authorities, they areobligated to monitor and filter comments made by users or risk seeing their sites suspended.3 2012 user numbers, sourced from platforms’ own websites and annual reportsSynthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 8
  9. 9. Social Networks Are Mostly Used By Students4The Facebook clones and Social Gaming Platforms making the biggest splash in China are: Renren, formerly Xiaonei (literally, “schoolyard”), was born as a network for re-connecting friends from school years, and had 172 million registered users by the end of 2012. RenRen pretty much looks, feels and does exactly what Facebook does. Douban is popular with special interest groups and communities, and for networking around specific topics, and has over 100 million users. QZone (owned by Tencent), with 700 million+ monthly active users, is China’s largest social gaming platform.Chinese Netizens Have Embraced a Variety of Youtube Clones as a Way toUpload and View VideosA disproportionately high number of Chinese netizens upload videos to the web (28.7%, versus 15.3% in theUSA, 11.5% in the UK, and 9.5% in France).5 The giants in this space are Youku and Tudou, with Xunlei, Qiyi,Ku6 and 56 battling it out for third place.Instant Messaging Platform, QQ, has a Staggering 794 Million Active Users perMonth6QQ numbers (aka: instant messaging accounts) are nearly as ubiquitous in China as phone numbers withpeople under the age of 40. The huge popularity of QQ has underpinned the rise to dominance of Tencent, acompany which owns many of the most popular social media platforms in China.4 Neilsen, May 20125 GlobalWebIndex Social Engagement Benchmark 20126 Source : Tencent, November 2012Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 9
  10. 10. A Social Media Presence is a Key Brand Asset in China66% of China’s social media users follow brands and on average each user follows 8 brands. 7 22% of usersclaim they are more likely to consider a brand that has a lot of “friends” or is “liked” by many while 54%would buy a brand if a friend liked or followed it on social media. Furthermore, Chinese consumers are morelikely to trust companies who microblog, suggesting that an official presence helps validate the brand in theeyes of consumers and can significantly impact on overall perception of brand values. Companies alreadyrecognize the value of a social presence in China. 211 of the top 500 global brands have Weibo enterpriseaccounts with an average of 218,000 fans/followers.8In China, Word-of-Mouth Recommendations Are KingChina’s netizens are more likely to consider social networking sites a good source of word-of-mouthinformation on brand experiences than are users in the U.S., at 23% compared to 18% in the US. 90% believethat information about brands on social media is reliable.9 In a country where more people rely on word-of-mouth recommendations than information from news sources and advertising, generating a strong socialmedia presence and opening a direct dialogue with consumers will be crucial for any brand aiming to harnessthis opportunity and prompt consumers along the purchasing cycle.7 Sources: Insites Consulting, September 2012 and DCCI, September 20128 Source: Goldpebble9 Source: Insites Consulting 2011Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 10
  11. 11. Tips for Brands!Tap into the Power of the WeiboA combination of the increased popularity of the internet, the development of online payment methods andimprovements in the reliability of logistical services has lead to significant growth in e-commerce in China.This means that microblogging sites are now a significant source of influence for online shoppers.10Tailor Content to Reflect Wider Platform Usage BehavioursUsers in China spend up to an hour per day on video sites such as Youku and Tudou, compared with less than15 minutes spent by Americans on YouTube. The average video is much longer than the shorter snippetswitnessed on YouTube, meaning that brands can afford to disseminate a greater depth of information on thechannel and anticipate longer engagement times.10 DCCI, September 2012Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 11
  12. 12. Harness Existing Platform FeaturesGaming on Kaixin100 is a heavily used feature. BMW leveraged this facet by integrating its presence on theplatform with a “Car Parking” game, which is now installed on 45 million profile pages and played by 5.5million people each day. In keeping with BMW’s aspirational brand values, their cars are more expensive topurchase with virtual currency and therefore offer a feeling of achievement for the users when purchased.Successful Case Studies: Rules of EngagementHow can brands harness this opportunity? Which companies have successfully utilized social media in Chinaand what activities have brought success? The following section outlines elements common to a number ofeffective brand campaigns in China and provides simple guidelines for effective engagement with millions ofreceptive consumers. Understand How Your Audiences Use Your Content Fashion brand Maybelline identified that their Renren and Sina Weibo pages attracted different audiences, with Weibo attracting a higher proportion of brand users while potential consumers were using the Renren page to find out more about the brand and its products. The brand therefore developed different content strategies for each property. Create Complementary Communities Across Platforms Lancome created its own forum community ( to be the online hub of its consumer engagement in China. Successful in generating high levels of interaction and discussion about Lancome products, the forum also allows users to purchase online. Lancome has also created a further community on Kaixin001, implementing activities such as beauty contests, personality and skin tests in order to build members and drive them to the original brand hub.Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 12
  13. 13. Leverage Influencers Watsons undertook a rigorous analysis of fan participation levels on social media and built a strong community through demonstrating an understanding of their interests. Dettol managed to increase sales of its anti-bacterial spray in Nanjing by 86% by identifying influential netizens and providing 90,000 of them with sample bottles. Place Your Social Presence Close to the Point of Sale In order to encourage fans to interact with the brand, Dell set up a flagship store on its brand page, where fans could use coupons to buy products from the store or gather product information and talk with sales associates. By running various network building activities and offering exclusive offers for fans on Renren, the company successfully sold 3,387 computers, after 15 weeks of implementing their social activity, via direct click-throughs from Renren.Synthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 13
  14. 14. ConclusionThat the web in general, and social media in particular, offers an increasing opportunity for brands in China isnot a new insight.Improved infrastructure and governmental investment have led to among the highest global levels ofinternet penetration in the world, while societal trends such as rural-to-urban migration (which has physicallyseparated families), the loneliness of the one-child generation, and a distrust of information fromgovernment-controlled media have all contributed to the incessant rise of social media platforms and theirusage. While censorship has undoubtedly affected the dissemination of news and free information in thecountry, the inherent spirit of sociability and rebellion hard-wired in human nature means that bloggers andcommenters have found routes around the blockades.Due to the size and receptiveness of the Chinese consumer market, social media affords brands theopportunity to shift brand preference and communicate brand values to an extent perhaps not attainable inmore cynical Western markets.Clear links have already been established between social media presences and product sales, whileincreasing brand presence has led to a greater understanding among marketers of how to make the most ofthe opportunity.Yet perhaps the most interesting finding is that while differences exist, they are only by degree. Granted theaudiences are bigger in China, but social media provides access to mass market numbers in most countries.Principles of engagement remain the same across all markets: listen to your audiences in order to betterunderstand them, speak to them in a relevant manner and provide them with content that creates value.However, in China your audience is more likely to respond to and respect communications and seemingly lesslikely to reject them. Request a PersonalWANT TO LEARN MORE? PresentationSynthesio – Social Media and Censorship in China 14