The Chinese government has launched its own version of Twitter. Weibo, the heavily censored micro-blogging platform is open to all, though dissenters adapt what they write on the service to avoid persecution by the authorities.
The Chinese government, which sees Twitter as an outlet for dissent, uses its powerful web firewall to block the site. Weibo, launched as a sop to pro-democracy activists, as well as for more mundane use, is nevertheless an instrument of state repression. Happily the censorship isn’t infallible. News of imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo winning a Nobel Peace Prize spread throughout Weibo disguised with homonyms and Latin abbreviations.
Both Weibo and Twitter are home to many government critics. One, Wen Yunchao, told The Economist he prefers Weibo if he wants information to be picked up by domestic media.
Inevitably Weibo is also being used as a government propaganda tool. Officials are trained in the “art of communicating with the public” through the service, and security services can use it to monitor perceived ‘trouble-makers’.
Closer to home, it is now very clear that Twitter users must be careful to write and operate within the law. Paul Chambers’ fine for tweeting a tongue-in-cheek bomb threat and Conservative councillor Gareth Crompton’s arrest for “threatening” journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown are indications that free speech remains only as free as the laws of libel allow.
As they put material up on the web, Twitter and other social media users in the UK should bear in mind the headline implications of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the mass of extensive anti-terror legislation and orders enacted by the last three Labour administrations. Once the material is online, it’s there for ever.