Earlier this month, Sina published three documents aimed at establishing a new management structure for its Weibo services, which took effect a few days ago. These come in the wake of the much publicized struggle to establish a real name registration system for microblog services. They are the Sina Weibo Community Management Regulations (Trial), the Sina Weibo Community Pact (Trial), and the Sina Weibo Community Committee System (Trial). These three documents establish a structure with two main components: content requirements for Weibo posts and “community committee” structures to judge on cases violating these requirements. They distinguish between three sorts of prohibited content: harmful information, false information and user-dispute type content. The first category is dealt with by Sina itself, and two sorts of community committees corresponding to the latter two categories.
Harmful information refers to the usual suspects, including “sensitive information”, which endangers national and social security (which essentially repeats most of the content provisions present for the traditional media, and also includes spreading rumours), junk advertising, obscene and sexual information. False information refers to fabricating events or details thereof, exaggerating facts, quoting out of context, etc. User dispute-type content is content that violates matters related to individuals’ civil rights: privacy, reputation, harassment, copyright and passing off.
The interesting aspect of these regulations is the community committee aspect. There will be two sorts of committees, a “normal committee”, which will deal with user disputes, and an “expert committee” to handle issues relating to false information. These are relatively large, with up to 10000 members for the normal committee and 1500 members for the expert committee. Members for both committees selected from volunteer Weibo members, for a term of one year. The requirements for the normal committee are relatively low: being an adult real-name verified Weibo member for half a year, with one hundred posts and fifty fans. Requirement to become an expert committee are more stringent: members must openly publish their real name, and be expert scholars or media professionals.
Case procedures for both committees are similar: when a case is accepted, a web page file is opened where the parties concerned can make statements for a limited period of time. After this, the case is put forward to a select committee of members from the larger committees, who have a limited time to vote on the case and provide their opinion. If a quorum and a majority opinion are reached, the case is decided.
This is a very interesting and novel manner of dealing with this sort of cases, and – to my mind – not one that exists with the large Western media networks. In effect, this structure creates a self-governing body inside Weibo, as long as no sensitive information is involved. Of course, it remains to be seen how these mechanisms are operationalized, but they do have potential to engender very interesting developments within the sphere of social media regulation. In particular, the expert committee will have their work cut out with dealing with false information, and this is where there may be an interesting overlap with alleged harmful information. What if information is harmful, but true as well? At the same time, there are some concerns: perhaps this may result in piecemeal and ad hoc decision-making, rather than the development of a consistent code of online behaviour. In any case, I am looking forward to seeing the first cases roll out and find out how these things work.