Sina Weibo Bans Gay Content, Quickly Backtracks After User Uproar

Social Networks
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It’s been a wild month for Sina Weibo. On Friday April 13, the Chinese social media network unveiled plans to delete all posts relating to gay culture as part of a three-month “cleanup” effort. A mere three days later, the company announced it would reverse the ban following an outpouring of anger from users.

Sina Weibo initially described the campaign as a removal of images, videos, text, and cartoons related to pornography, violence, and homosexuality. "This is to further ensure a clear and harmonious society and environment," the network said in its statement, as well as to comply with stricter cybersecurity laws enacted by President Xi Jinping.

But to many users, the announcement had sinister underpinnings. Tens of thousands took to the social network to express outrage at the campaign’s discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in China, an issue that persists more than two decades after the country decriminalized homosexuality.

Much of the LGBT community in China remains closeted though homosexuality has been legally permitted since 1997 and conservative attitudes prevail in many parts of the country. According to a 2016 UN survey referenced by The Guardian, only 15% have told their parents and 5% have come out publicly.

The Chinese government officially takes a neutral stance on the issue, but many fear President Xi’s tightening grip on the internet will force companies to remove content deemed offensive, unwholesome or immoral.

Incensed activists immediately took action in the wake of Sina Weibo’s announcement. Slogans like “My mouth can be muted, but my love can’t” quickly spread across the social network. LGBT users posted selfies with the caption “I am gay” followed by a string rainbow emojis. A hashtag that translates to #Iamnotagaypervert was viewed more than 1.35 million times.

By Monday morning, “homosexuality” was the most censored search term on Weibo, yet much of the content from infuriated users remained. The flood of posts was too much for the company’s censors to manage.

Later that day came another announcement: the clean-up would “no longer apply to homosexual content.”

"We thank everyone for their discussion and suggestions," Sina Weibo added, providing no further details.

It’s rare to see a company backtrack on a decision in response to public outcry. The Weibo account @LGBT called it a positive step toward showing “respect for people who are different,” but it’s no guarantee of success for similar movements in the future.

An outpouring of indignation in February over President Xi’s removal of term limits had no impact, and regulators retaliated with additional censoring. Sina Weibo’s reversal is worth celebrating, but it may be a lone victory for activists in China.