Have the characters “Egypt” disappeared from the Chinese micro-blogosphere?

To recall the news item I am referring to, many news media like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported a week ago that popular microblogging systems such as Sina Weibo had blocked the “Egypt” characters (埃及) from their search engine.

This had made rounds in my networks and made many people excited about the importance of the news. (One mainstream media even confounded the blocking of search with the blocking of everything…) I have said in a previous post that my intuition was to say that the ban would have no or little effect, simply because microblog users (Twitter included), sporadically used the search function and trusted the people they followed.

Sitting on an archive of weibos (microblog posts) from Sina, I decided to do a quantitative survey on the actual chatter happening around Egypt on China’s most popular microblogging service. My only disclaimer is that while our sample size is large, it is also skewed towards Hong Kong users made out of ordinary citizens.

We followed about 100,000 users in Hong Kong based on a search by province (the location on Sina Weibo is coded). Another 40,000 consisted in users with 1,000 or more followers from all across the network that we gathered through popularity search (most followers in each city/province) or incidentally when researching single posts of interest. So, this gives us a total of 140,000 users or less for which we have followed and downloaded the posts.

I also waited a week after the search ban before compiling results because I wanted to have the most complete archive of posts (it takes about 2-4 days to crawl through the entire list of users we follow). As of today, I can now say that our archive is complete up to last Thursday, February 3rd, 2011.

Overall occurrence of the term “Egypt”

My first piece of data tracks the evolution in the number of posts, reposts and distinct users talking about the specific characters “埃及” (Egypt), along with that of “突尼斯” (Tunisia):

For simplicity, only the total of posts+reposts are shown on the following preview. Clicking on the image get you the full picture.

What were the most reposted stories with the characters for “Egypt”? The answer lies here

This is just to understand what type of chatter we are talking about when it comes to “Egypt”. I did a compilation of the most popular reposts since January 23rd, 2011, when the number of posts on Egypt started to rise on Weibo (at 100+/day from our sample, compared with a baseline of 10-30).

Here are some highlights:

1. [478 reposts] 2/2/2011 1:29:51 中國人這次在埃及機場的確表現的很出色,大使館給滯留的公民都送去了盒飯,裏面的配菜很簡單就是雞蛋,土豆,粉絲加米飯,尤其是剛回國的這些孩子們都把雞蛋省了下來送給機場那些饑腸轆轆的外國人吃。香港媒體評論:這是最好的國家形象片,政府救助及時,公民懂得分享,留給他們的除了感謝還有嫉妒@人傑 (login required) This seems to be a story of Hong Kong citizens stranded in Egypt.

2. [181 reposts] 2/3/2011 0:26:20 半岛台消息:据现场人员报告,埃及博物馆就要被烧毁了。此时此刻,地球上两个地方爆炸声震天,一处在欢庆,一处在怒吼。 (login required) From a netizen named Bob Wang, with little followership (just shy of 600 at this moment), who talks about the looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He also makes the parallel about the two places in the world at midnight on Feb 3 loudest with explosions, Egypt (because of the uprising) and China (because of the Lunar New Year).

3. [169 reposts] 1/29/2011 10:36:12 埃及开罗骚乱暂平息,坦克开进广场士兵拒绝开枪:1月29日凌晨,在埃及首都开罗,示威者爬上装甲车。 埃及军队的数十辆装甲车与坦克于29日凌晨开入示威者占据的解放广场,士兵表示不开枪,游行示威者也表达了和平意愿,骚乱暂时平息。(新华社) From HK-based Pheonix TV. In Google Translate: Temporarily quell riots in Cairo, Egypt, the soldiers refused to shoot tanks rolled into squares: 29 January morning, in the Egyptian capital Cairo, protesters climbed the armored vehicles. Egyptian army armored vehicles and dozens of tanks in the open into the early morning of 29 demonstrators occupied the Liberation Square, the soldiers said they did not shoot demonstrators also expressed their peaceful intentions, riots temporarily subsided. (Xinhua News Agency)

12. [100 reposts] 2/3/2011 13:26:47 埃及人民舉起中文標語。 (login required) [image] The author is Beifeng, aka Wen Yunchao, a mainland blogger, rights activist and CMP fellow.

N/A. [total 1990 reposts] 1/28/2011 22:28:41 埃及的互联网流量。新闻:http://sinaurl.cn/hqAmsJ (login required) A post by Internet entrepreneur Lee Kai-fu, one of the top 10 most popular users across the Sina network. He talks about the Internet shutdown in Egypt. I had it removed from my list because we specifically targeted this post for further studies, introducing a bias in the repost count via our archiving system.

Number of original posts with the characters for “Egypt”

This is one of the potentially interesting figures that could mean anything until we find a baseline to compare (probably Twitter but just looking at Chinese users). As shown on the graph and in the previous one that took into account reposts, the number of original posts decreased markedly after the January 29th peak, that is the day before the ban on search was reported to be activated.

It would be interesting to see the effect with a more systematic or curated sample of users from all regions of China and around the world. Comparing with other issues and the popularity of a wide range of topics (between “forbidden topics” and more innocuous stuff) would also allow us further insights on this sudden rise and fall in interest. (And it wouldn’t really be called a fall, since we still sustain an average of above 2,000 posts and reposts with the characters for “Egypt”, out of about 120,000 posts per day in the sample of users outside Hong Kong.)