A Comparative Study of Social Networks and the Adaptations to Censorship:

Social Networks

The topic I chose to focus my research on is social networking. I intend to do a comparative study of the Chinese adaptations of popular social networks and the social networks themselves. I will be comparing Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Renren, Weibo and Youku.  Renren is often regarded as the Chinese Facebook. Weibo is thought of as the Chinese Twitter, and undergoes heavy censorship. Youku is the Chinese version of YouTube. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked, and not available to a majority of the Chinese people. Hence the need for these adaptations.  Although YouTube is not technically a social networking site, it is a means of spreading and sharing information through videos and users typically have accounts as well as the ability to post videos and watch what other people have posted. Thus it will be included for the purpose of this ethnographic study. Not only will I be comparing the characteristics of the aforementioned websites, I will also be observing the extent of the involvement of the Chinese on these social networking sites given the censorship measures attached to them. Given this censorship, I intend to investigate what exactly the social networks are used for, and whether or not they are considered a reliable source of information. The target audience in this case will be from ages 18 to 40. Trends show people in this age range use social networks the most.


The purpose of this research is to determine the role that social networks play in the spreading of information. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have not only become a way to connect but a way to share news, information as well as thoughts with friends and the rest of the world. These sites do not have censorship measures. To be clear, for the purpose of this study, censorship will be described as the removal of content due to sensitive political information or opposing views that is not reported by other individuals. This allows us to exclude the ‘mark as spam’ and ‘report’ options that exist within Facebook and Twitter. The ‘report’ option exists to protect the users, and is typically used to report any abusive users. Marking as spam blocks the user posting it from looking at your profile. It does not result in immediate suspension, and the account or content is not immediately taken down.


YouTube removes videos as well, although not as fast as is the case with Weibo. There are three reasons that Youtube will take down a video. Firstly, the removals will generally result if “the video contains nudity, gratuitous violence or otherwise violates YouTube Terms of Service and Community Guidelines”. Secondly, your video will be taken down if YouTube computers detect a match between your video and one that is claimed by a copyright owner. The last reason YouTube will take down a video is if it is involved in copyright infringement. Clearly these measures are more targeted towards protecting copyrights owners and the community rather than restricting expression in political videos. Also, with YouTube, you have the chance to fight this ‘take down’ if you are not in violation of the Terms of Service.


The main question I seek to answer is whether the social networks are used differently across the Chinese culture, and the effects of censorship on that use. I intend to use questionnaires and interviews as my primary source of raw data. The questionnaire will be targeted at finding out how frequently the subject uses a social networking site, why they do so, and how they feel in light of the censorship measures. Any of the sensitive questions, particularly those discussing censorship by the government, will be placed in the questionnaire in order to elicit truthful answers, since they will be protected by anonymity.  The interview will be targeted towards finding out why the subjects feel the social networks are important, how they feel about them and how often they are in use. Depending on whether or not I am able to finish the editing in time, I intend to make a documentary as my final project.


The sites of these interviews will probably primarily be at Tsinghua University, as college students are a big part of this study due to their extensive involvements in social networks. Other places I plan to conduct these interviews are popular places teenagers are likely to go in Beijing, which I plan to determine once I get there. I will either determine these locations through observation of various sites on campus or by asking people. PhD and Masters students are also subjects of interest. I intend to go to the graduate schools and departments at Tsinghua. Another community of interest is the international students of Tsinghua University. I intend to reach them by going to the Zijing International student apartments, claiming to host over two thousand international students. Interviews and questionnaires will be conducted. However, the students will not be considered relevant to the study if they did not use the aforementioned social networking sites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) before coming to China. Their opinions on the Chinese social networking sites relative to what they have used will be carefully recorded. Subjects of particular interest will be those who currently have accounts with these social networking sites.


In order to understand, and later compare the workings and characteristics of the sites, I intend to open accounts with Renren, Weibo and Youku. This will allow me to do some background research on how people use these networks through what they post online. It will also allow me to observe the features the social networks have, and why they exist in that manner. Finally allowing me to compare these features and sites with existing and popular social networking sites that are available globally.


“Internet Censorship & Social Media” by Yalkin, Kerrigan and vom Lehn, studies the reactions of the Turkish population to censorship.   Interestingly enough, the justification that the Turkish government gives for the extensive censorship is the insufficiency of parental monitoring and systems. The researchers got their data from both interviews and anonymous online blogs discussing the subject on a popular site.They pay particular attention to Blogger and YouTube. They assert that the banning of Blogger changes how the Turkish people consume information, and share it. What was surprising was that the citizens of Turkey were fully aware of what they were missing due to the censorship measures that were enacted. A clear complaint was the luck of such sites for the public to read opinions, views and even reviews of products. The reaction to censorship was relatively clear-cut; people either made fun of the censorship measures or used technological provisions to override the bans.