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Society newlight on 25 Jul 2011 01:22 am

A small victory for weibo

I learned in Saturday afternoon the news of a train crash in China’s Zhejiang province from weibo.com, China’s equivalent of Twitter. There are quite a few twitter copycats in China but Sina’s Weibo, literally means ‘min-blogging’ is the most influential one. It’s since became the primary source for me to follow the development.

Suddenly the crash became the most discussed subject, and weibo.com added a special section for the discussion of this accident. It does not escape censorship though. Many tweets have since been deleted ‘by the original poster’, so the site claims. But it helps that this happened in a Saturday evening when perhaps the censor’s response wasn’t fast enough. According to China Digital Times, a directive was indeed sent to various news organisations later, stopping them from reporting anything out of the official line. But it was too late to stop this accident became the hottest discussion on weibo.com.

It’s interesting to see how witness accounts and reportage were propagated through weibo.com. Without any news from official channel, users of weibo.com were first alerted by tweets sent by residents living near the accident site. The accident that a high speed train hit from behind a stationary train previously stricken by lightning, happened in the outskirt of the city of Wenzhou, a well-off and highly populated area. Many witnesses were equipped with digital cameras, mobile phones and internet connections. Photos and videos of the accident flooded in, then being re-tweeted by many others.

Among those who were doing the re-tweeting are some Chinese journalists. Unlike their western counterparts, many Chinese journalists operate on weibo.com in a semi-official way. Those that appear to be the official account of a publication or a news organisation do not strictly follow the editorial line. By merely re-tweeting the witness accounts, they lend their influence and credibility without getting their organisations into too much trouble.

When journalists arrived the scene, some of them immediately started to tweet whatever they had seen, most of what they tweeted were not likely to appear on their publication/broadcasting. There was an angry scene in a press conference where journalists fiercely pursued (‘beaten’ was used metaphorically on weibo.com) an official from the Railway Ministry. Local TV station actually broadcasted the press conference live. Some of the footages have since appeared on Chinese video-sharing website. How long will they survive is anyone’s guess.

The ‘human interest’ stories which you often read after the initial reportage of accident now are on your screen immediately. Soon after the accident, some tweets sent a few minutes before the crash by passengers on the train were discovered and re-tweeted while no news about their survival. There was also a moving scene of local people queuing up to donate blood (resulting in a traffic jam), recorded by weibo.com users. It’s chaotic, unfiltered and sometimes rumour-ridden.

Weibo has beaten the censorship, at least for a while.

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