Protocol | China

Censored word lists are 'proprietary assets' for Chinese big tech

A Q&A with a former Weibo censor on how many censors ByteDance hires, where the new 'red lines' lie and what's different under Xi Jinping.

A view from outside ByteDance's headquarters in Beijing.
A view from outside ByteDance's headquarters in Beijing.
Emmanuel Wong / Contributor via Getty Images

Each year, around the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests and ensuing crackdown, censorship tightens in China. This year, web users found it to be business as usual. Social media users and even video gamers discovered they were not able to change profile images. Internet companies prevented users from sharing content "due to maintenance." The candle emoji disappeared from WeChat's default emoji collection. Weibo users reported account deletions or suspensions after they shared images of candles, even when they didn't mention a specific event or cause.

The moves felt familiar, but censorship has been tightening nevertheless. As Protocol | China has reported, several major hate campaigns led by ultra-nationalist influencers, or "Red Vs," have triggered widespread censorship in recent months. In the weeks leading up to the June 4 anniversary this year, analysts who track censorship in China have observed an uptick in censorship activities that seemed rather random, as well as an elevated level of punishment for speech infractions. Last weekend, Chinese web users reported that "lie flat," a popular term referring to the retreat from the rat race in protest against cutthroat competition, had been censored.

Protocol spoke about these evolving censorship measures with Liu Lipeng, who worked as an internet censor and a content quality manager at several Chinese tech companies, including Weibo, for nearly 10 years. Liu is currently an editor at China Digital Times, a U.S.-based publication tracking censorship in China. Liu has recently made public over 1,000 internal memos that he saved while working on Weibo's content moderation team, as well as government directives and lists of censored content he received while working at, a Beijing-based video streaming company.

The below transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and sequencing.

Protocol: Can social media platforms achieve censorship largely through technology, or is it still a labor-intensive undertaking?

Liu: Human censors are still a critical part of it. One reason why ByteDance has become so successful is that it hires the most censors among all social media companies. Though they boast their AI capabilities, they spend the most on manpower moderating content; they have at least 10,000 content moderators in Tianjin alone. I think Weibo's content moderation apparatus is just 10% of ByteDance. When I worked for Weibo, they only hired about 200 censors.

Why aren't other tech companies hiring more censors, then?

It's costly. If the profitability of your product isn't there yet, you won't be able to expand your censorship staff drastically. To some degree, a Chinese tech company's censorship mechanism determines the kind of social media product they can offer. ByteDance is able to achieve a host of features in their products because of the size of their content moderation team.

Are companies outsourcing censorship to third-party companies?

Startups do that, but big tech companies have in-house censorship teams because they wouldn't risk leaking their own data. The bottom line is that every user-generated content platform needs to be closely monitored, because if you don't do that, you'll be forced to close shop. The companies' censorship mechanisms now have to be inspected. Starting in 2018, social media companies have had to carry out "security evaluations," which have to be reviewed and approved by authorities.

How valuable is the censored list to each company?

It's their proprietary asset. Why? No one will hand it to you. You can't communicate openly about what needs to be censored. Authorities definitely won't give you a specific list. So you have to come up with your own list. And if you do it well, that will give you a leg up in the competition.

Are you saying the companies often have to guess what's sensitive?

It's a mix of explicit directives from censorship authorities and self-initiation. For example, Douban recently suspended groups that are related to "lie flat" and the term is censored on other platforms as well. But in this case, they probably were just preemptively deleting content, instead of receiving any explicit directive to do so, because the degree to which the term is gutted is different across platforms.

Who are the censorship authorities, exactly?

There are many at the central and local levels. It's a shifting list, and infighting often occurs among them over jurisdictions. The main one is the Cyberspace Administration of China, which has various local branches. Then the public security organs have their internet police and security apparatus. Each local government has set up an Internet Culture Management Office. The propaganda organs can also direct companies to censor content.

These agencies can distribute so-called "harmful samples" that contain text, images, videos or links that need to be censored. Many of the banned words are distilled from those "harmful samples."

Why did you decide to keep the internal memos from Weibo? And what made you come forward and release them?

Before I joined Weibo, I had hoped to work for a social media company and provide value to users through my work. But I couldn't pursue my professional goal, so I left. I felt it was my responsibility to preserve history. Every day, things disappeared from the internet. But I got to keep the photo negatives, which I believe have their historical value. It's personally gratifying to publish those records and now work against censorship. In some way, I am making up for my past engagement in censorship.

Many Chinese web users now feel anything they post online can trigger censorship. Is there still a red line?

The censors' strategy is to make you feel that the red line no longer exists, scaring you into complete self-censorship. It's always a cat-and-mouse game. Once censors realize users have tested a red line, they move it. The red line has become a moving target.

How has censorship evolved over the years?

It's tightened over time, of course. From [censorship of] Hong Kong and Xinjiang to COVID-19, the space for discussion is shrinking by the day. Political discussions and social issues have always been sensitive, but the scale of censorship is far bigger these days. Before Xi Jinping came to power, the focus of censorship was on collective action — whether any news or discussion could stir public outrage and lead to potential protests. These are still closely monitored, but what feels like a bigger target today is anything that doesn't align with mainstream political ideology. Anyone who's deemed unpatriotic, disrespectful of state leaders, state-designated heroes or whose politics are considered to deviate from so-called "socialist core values" are damned. And then, of course, you can't joke about Xi. Before, corporate censors also monitored mockery of leaders, but the intensity of censorship then had nothing on how they treat Xi-related comments today.


How the creators of Spligate built gaming’s newest unicorn

1047 Games is now valued at $1.5 billion after three rounds of funding since May.

1047 Games' Splitgate amassed 13 million downloads when its beta launched in July.

Image: 1047 Games

The creators of Splitgate had a problem. Their new free-to-play video game, a take on the legendary arena shooter Halo with a teleportation twist borrowed from Valve's Portal, was gaining steam during its open beta period in July. But it was happening too quickly.

Splitgate was growing so fast and unexpectedly that the entire game was starting to break, as the servers supporting the game began to, figuratively speaking, melt down. The game went from fewer than 1,000 people playing it at any given moment in time to suddenly having tens of thousands of concurrent players. Then it grew to hundreds of thousands of players, all trying to log in and play at once across PlayStation, Xbox and PC.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at

While it's easy to get lost in the operational and technical side of a transaction, it's important to remember the third component of a payment. That is, the human behind the screen.

Over the last two years, many retailers have seen the benefit of investing in new, flexible payments. Ones that reflect the changing lifestyles of younger spenders, who are increasingly holding onto their cash — despite reports to the contrary. This means it's more important than ever for merchants to take note of the latest payment innovations so they can tap into the savings of the COVID-19 generation.

Keep Reading Show less
Antoine Nougue,

Antoine Nougue is Head of Europe at He works with ambitious enterprise businesses to help them scale and grow their operations through payment processing services. He is responsible for leading the European sales, customer success, engineering & implementation teams and is based out of London, U.K.

Protocol | Policy

Why Twitch’s 'hate raid' lawsuit isn’t just about Twitch

When is it OK for tech companies to unmask their anonymous users? And when should a violation of terms of service get someone sued?

The case Twitch is bringing against two hate raiders is hardly black and white.

Photo: Caspar Camille Rubin/Unsplash

It isn't hard to figure out who the bad guys are in Twitch's latest lawsuit against two of its users. On one side are two anonymous "hate raiders" who have been allegedly bombarding the gaming platform with abhorrent attacks on Black and LGBTQ+ users, using armies of bots to do it. On the other side is Twitch, a company that, for all the lumps it's taken for ignoring harassment on its platform, is finally standing up to protect its users against persistent violators whom it's been unable to stop any other way.

But the case Twitch is bringing against these hate raiders is hardly black and white. For starters, the plaintiff here isn't an aggrieved user suing another user for defamation on the platform. The plaintiff is the platform itself. Complicating matters more is the fact that, according to a spokesperson, at least part of Twitch's goal in the case is to "shed light on the identity of the individuals behind these attacks," raising complicated questions about when tech companies should be able to use the courts to unmask their own anonymous users and, just as critically, when they should be able to actually sue them for violating their speech policies.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Workplace

Remote work is here to stay. Here are the cybersecurity risks.

Phishing and ransomware are on the rise. Is your remote workforce prepared?

Before your company institutes work-from-home-forever plans, you need to ensure that your workforce is prepared to face the cybersecurity implications of long-term remote work.

Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The delta variant continues to dash or delay return-to-work plans, but before your company institutes work-from-home-forever plans, you need to ensure that your workforce is prepared to face the cybersecurity implications of long-term remote work.

So far in 2021, CrowdStrike has already observed over 1,400 "big game hunting" ransomware incidents and $180 million in ransom demands averaging over $5 million each. That's due in part to the "expanded attack surface that work-from-home creates," according to CTO Michael Sentonas.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at
Protocol | Fintech

When COVID rocked the insurance market, this startup saw opportunity

Ethos has outraised and outmarketed the competition in selling life insurance directly online — but there's still an $887 billion industry to transform.

Life insurance has been slow to change.

Image: courtneyk/Getty Images

Peter Colis cited a striking statistic that he said led him to launch a life insurance startup: One in twenty children will lose a parent before they turn 15.

"No one ever thinks that will happen to them, but that's the statistics," the co-CEO and co-founder of Ethos told Protocol. "If it's a breadwinning parent, the majority of those families will go bankrupt immediately, within three months. Life insurance elegantly solves this problem."

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Latest Stories