Is Sina Weibo China’s worst private monopoly?


Sina is watching you, and controls what you watch.


Once in a while we feel compelled to post on a more deeper issue related to entertainment. This is one that’s been bothering me for years. All opinions are by me and do not represent the website as a whole. Please feel free to post other proofs or examples you see, and correct any errors. 

Imagine if which news you read was purely dependent on how much someone paid the newspaper. What if that newspaper was also your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?

Microblogging platform Sina Weibo is one of the world’s top source for information. Yet without regulation, this  means a world where Sina is able to highlight its own news sources (or that of anyone who pays them) in all searches and tags for a fifth of the world.  They’re also able to make whatever hashtags or searches they want prominent.

Last month, in a new move where only a percentage of posts by those you follow will be displayed, this means they’re able to highlight or hide all posts, effectively controlling everything you see. I’ve seen this happen in several gossip scandals, where people’s Weibo posts are clearly there, but followers are unable to see them due to this mysterious “chance”.


Abuse of Dominance in News

“Monopolists are damned without further ado; they are so wicked that they deserve to be sent into perpetual exile both in this world and in the next.”
—  Saint Bernardine of Siena

When a scandal breaks out and one searches for the scandal, instead of seeing the notice put by the actual person of interest or the news agency that first leaked the scandal,  people instead see the Sina News’ Weibo report on it.  While other news sources must delete a post to make corrections, Sina accounts has the ability to change to edit their posts. Sina is using its monopoly powers on Weibo to give unfair advantage to its business in other fields, most important of which is news.   When most of China gets its news from a single commercial website whose news can easily be brought, that’s a concern beyond mere unfair competition tactics.  This is especially since Internet news sources have yet been punished for not distinguishing paid advertisements in the form of news from real news.

In the U.S., the above would be  a clear violation of fair competition laws and Sina would’ve been forced to split its Weibo operations with other operations per United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.  But unfortunately, as China is breaking up its state monopolies in favor of private-run enterprises, it has not kept up with the West in its regulation of monopolies.   Its limited fair competition laws set in place in the past decade have so far mostly been used to breakup foreign monopolies.

Because of its strength in networks (the more people using it, the more draw it has), Sina is a natural monopoly.   This means that breaking it up is inefficient.  However, what is unnatural is how Sina is using its natural monopoly powers to exercise unfair competition in other markets that should not be monopolies.


False Advertising

Consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party.  Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising.

– U.S. FTC

While most print news must clearly distinguish advertisement from reporting, and Google is required to clearly note which one of its search results are ads and which ones are “natural results.”  Sina is not.  And while Google owns less that 60% of the search engine market share, Sina owns almost 100% of the microblogging market.

This means that Sina has a much bigger power to manipulate and deceive users into only seeing news they want you to see.  It’s allowing for false advertisement on a large scale.

Imagine if Voldemort hated Dumbledore.  All he would have to do is buy a search that includes “Dumbledore drug addict”.  Soon, the majority of China will see that Dumbledore is somehow related to drug addiction.  Even though they expect this search to be due to a result of a lot of people searching for it, in fact, the search is a paid slander campaign.

Voldemort can then buy the top Weibo results for that search so everything that comes up first are of various people bad-mouthing Dumbledore.  People expect those posts to be on the top because they are either true or because people care, but again, it actually is a paid slander campaign.

And while there’s few as evil as he-who-must-not-be-named, following entertainment news on Weibo has taught me plenty of times how the above examples can be used to ruin someone with rumors or to hide the truth by buying out searches. And while I mostly used entertainment examples, you can imagine how this is a much bigger issue when it comes to social and political news.

This week, in the JYP-Tzuyu scandal, Weibo deleted a post from The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and blocked one by a CCP magazine from being seen. The latter post was only recovered after other party accounts posted proof of the missing post.   If Sina is so fearless of its powers that it’s willing to use its unfair competition tactics  against the government in a place like China, I think that’s clearly a sign of too much power.


What needs to be done?

So, what laws needs to be set in place? I’m no expert on anti-trust law or industrial organization, but here’s my limited take on the minimum that needs to happen to Weibo for a diverse news market in China.

  • The requirement and enforcement for Sina to clearly label which searches or posts are promoted .  They currently do this some what, but it’s very obvious that many top searches are brought when two completely unrelated terms that no one cares about suddenly appear as a top search, and there is no punishment set in place for Sina. The U.S. went through the same problem when social networks came into prominence and ignored similar rules set on search engines.
  • The break-up of Weibo and other affiliated  Sina services to prevent financial incentives for Sina to use its monopoly power in Weibo to unfairly compete in other areas. This includes Sina news, Sina music, etc.
  • The requirement for the top posts on any given search or hashtag be based on a fair algorithm rather than human choice (i.e whatever is in Sina’s incentive).



27 thoughts on “Is Sina Weibo China’s worst private monopoly?

  1. By the way, my friend told me that the person behind Weibo is Taiwanese and that is why all the Tzuyu scandal related comments were being deleted. I wanted to share this info since I found it quiet interesting (and linked to the topic of this article ^^)

  2. I’ve never thought of such issues before, but it totally make sense as long as money is involved. I’ll have to make my own judgement for now on.

  3. This post is full of very interesting information so thanks so much! I always felt like Sina has such a strong monopoly over Chinese media and the Chinese government over the Chinese population.. It is sad and will surely be very hard to change. Your Voldemort example is really good and made me realize even more just how scary this whole situation became. I am mostly using sina and weibo as sources for my posts and at the end of the day, I am also a puppet to the bigger powers.. v_v
    But let’s not kid ourselves. The same situation can very well happen with google, yahoo, Forbes, etc. I went to a google talk las year over machin learning and there are some crazy complex algorithms behind their advertisement system too. Internet is powerful and dangerous. It is a public product so at the end, anyone (aka hackers) can also change slowly the info we see.
    It is interesting you are refering to the Tzuyu scandal. I didn’t think it was a big problem before because I didn’t see it trending much on weibo until it got to the proportions we see today..

    • The rumor is that Sina’s been keeping it down on Weibo. On top of the deleted/hidden government posts, a lot of other people said their posts against her were getting deleted or hidden. It is customary for entertainment companies to pay to reduce trending topics, although I don’t know what is JYP or Sina’s role in it. In addition, the election in Taiwan means that a lot of people on the other side of the strait may also have incentives to damage control (or increase the damage). But again, no proof of any involvement except for those missing posts.

      Google doesn’t have its own news though. The monopolization of Sina as a news outlet is what concerns me the most. Sohu, QQ, etc. used to be competing online news outlets that kept each other in check, and now Sina is so much ahead. :(

      • That explains so much because I wondered why there was so much fuss over a scandal that didn’t get much attention on their weibo hashtag. I wonder who between China/Sina/JYP/others is behind deleting all these comments so suddenly and why. One thing is for sure, it is at the advantage of Taiwan to keep this topic alive and hot.
        That’s true, although google does have a lot of power in the Western world. I think they have good work etiquette too, but just knowing that they have so much power can be scary… :(

        • I am not saying you’re wrong but Taiwanese politics are really heated… Just a note so you are aware going into the future.

          It might be better to say that it’s better for the “green” parties as opposed to “Taiwan” in this case. I know some people from the “blue” camp would argue that since Tsai Ing-wen has had an advantage in the elections, that she has had the luxury of being vague on issues and simple stated stuff that she will “maintain the status quo” but seems to reject the 1992 Consensus upon which both the blue side and mainland China acknowledge as a basis to build the relationship. Therefore, lots of people are wondering how she is planning to achieve this these two objectives…

          More references here:

          • Thanks for these information! I was wondering what was the name of those political coalitions. Yes, I definitely meant the more radical party (so the green) one. I also wonder how she will keep up with her own promises. For sure most of Taiwan’s population is expecting action from her.

            • The sad part is I suspect that most of the ruckus from Taiwan is from what seems like JYP choosing the mainland over them… >.< I mean most of the repercussions seem to be aimed at the mainland while the real story is more complex. Also, it seems like the government of the mainland had very little to do with this but somehow, voting becomes a way to "show the world that we aren't to be messed with." Some things aren't connecting right for me here or I''m just confused and mis-interpreting… DX

          • The thing is, the last time the “green” party presidential candidate won the office in Taiwan, another incident occurred directly (like hours) before voting was to take place.


            and this isn’t the first time things like this have happened that have curbed public favor.


            Therefore, people on the blue side are suspicious and all kinds of theories are probably flying around at this point… like that Chu might have actually had a chance according to polls conducted right after the last debate, etc. etc.

            Although I feel that the “green” side does answer to that with their own suspicions due to the KMT’s history and are quick to judge as well which explains the above two… >.<


            The problem is this is really getting into the arena of circumstantial evidence and is a bit conspiracy-theory-like since little definitive proof has come up to link it with either party, nor would I expect for it to for the Tzuyu incident and the first two I referenced… I guess stuff like this would classify as kind of the "darker side" of democracy?

    • In my opinion, it will blow over. Tzuyu will probably face consequences but unfortunately, that’s the industry for you. Also, you have to acknowledge that one of the main reasons why she may have been chosen was because (note how I word this) she can be counted/marketed as Chinese despite what she actually identifies as which I will leave to her.

      Also, from the Taiwan side, it’s not like they haven’t had their fair share of messy business that runs counter to this like hazing of visiting Chinese ambassadors with paint and other projectiles. It seems a bit unreasonable to justify being angry at the mainland for this kind of treatment, especially when it has not escalated to the point of bad treatment towards government officials from another territory which is really crossing the line in my opinion since then it’s taking place on more of an “official basis.” Things aren’t that bad and it seems really uncalled for.

      Also, this took place mainly outside Taiwan so I’m not sure how the authority is supposed to extend itself. It seems like it shouldn’t involve that much nationalism and everything. It’s just lost endorsements and business opportunities so… I mean if anything, I can see how the mainland should be getting upset for their treatment as opposed to this…

      But just to set the record straight, they are both wrong.

      I honestly don’t understand a lot of the fuss over the influence on the elections. Based on my understanding, the green side was set for a win anyways so does all this even matter at the end of the day…? >.<

      • I think Tzuyu was chosen as the victim (or as I’d like to call “the sacrifice”) because she is in a Korean band. Out of everything Asian, kpop is definitely the most followed phenomen and the fandoms are craving for scandals. It is strategically the best choice for international attention.
        I didn’t hear about these Taiwan/China conflicts and Chinese Ambassadors being booed before. :O It is a huge issue and visibly not everyone is being cold headed when dealing with it.
        The elections’ result per say didn’t change much after this. But Ms.Tsai (the new president) definitely got a lot of extra votes from this as well as a lot of supporters for her future endeavours. With so much attention, I feel like they won’t be passive about this issue and will definitely act on it during her mandate.

        • The thing is, there’s not much I can actually imagine her doing… Taiwan has very little recognition in terms of the international community and that’s probably not something that will change. This also largely took place outside of Taiwan and is thus largely outside of her jurisdiction (and exacerbated with lack of official connections) so other than making some public statements here and there, I’m not sure if much else can happen…

          • Yes. So far, it is still hard for Taiwan to really declare their independence. But again, with the power of social media (as shown this time), nothing is certain. The Green Coalition can easily get the support of big countries like USA and even win public’s favor with the media. She can’t do much about the Tzuyu scandal, but she definitely can use it at her advantage to unite more Taiwaneses to her cause. (lol, it feels like a game of chess and Tzuyu was a pawn).

            • OMG!! What have scheming dramas from China done to us!! XD I guess it’s all part of growing up so it was bound to happen.

              But definitely yes. I can’t really see this extending farther than a grab for public support. I would be very surprised if this extends to much else since there are subjects outside of public opinion like economics and all that jazz. If it does, things will more than likely get messy real fast.

              • HAHA. #dramaaddictionproblems There is always something darker behind what we see in the media :P
                I thought it would calm down, but today, I was talking with some of my more Chinese friends and they are all quiet heated up about the subject xD (and they are finding the current Biaoqingbao battle between Korean and Chinese netizens quiet funny). So, right now, I feel like it won’t calm down until at least the end of the week…

    • It did blow up on weibo to the point of people calling for banning all JYPE artists in China and with some TV stations cancelling TWICE and other JYPE artists activities. It got to the point where Korean companies like Innisfree had to stress that Twice wasn’t their official model. It was creating enough anger that the company was losing business and deals.

      • No one here has mentioned Wang An, a singer from Taiwan now living in China, who instigated this incident. He’s been outing alleged pro-Taiwan independence entertainers and named 16 yr old Ziyu because she waved a ROC flag. This has created a backlash against China/Taiwan and China/S.Korean relations, as well as for Wang An himself. He’s now the most hated man in Taiwan and the PRC probably isn’t happy with him either for putting the Chinese side in this awkward position.

      • Thing is, based on what I have heard, Taiwanese Aborigines tend to vote “blue”… so this really… is weird… >.<

        • Omg, nobody touches my Show Luo! grrr. Joke, but seriously, the number of fans on facebook lost isn’t such a big deal because I am sure he will gain that back in no time on weibo. But yeah, I don’t think he did anything wrong. Just as Tzuyu should have the right to wave a TW flag, Show Luo has the right to call himself Chinese. Everyone should stop acting like hypocrites.

          • It’s all so VERY complex. Show Luo has a mainland girlfriend and is filming in China. Declaring pro-independence means losing a huge market, which is drawing more Taiwanese entertainers to the mainland- the latest being Dee Hsu and her long-time co-host from Kangxi.
            On the other hand, Lin Chi-ling’s parents have been acknowledged as pro-green, but Lin never had to endure verbal abuse and is actually well-liked in China. Unlike poor Shu Qi who suffered the wrath of mainland netizens last year because they believed a Taiwanese media fabrication where she claimed to be Taiwanese instead of Chinese.

Leave a Reply