Social Media

WeChat censoring content related to coronavirus: report

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on March 04, 2020


WeChat, a Chinese multi-purpose messaging app, and Chinese live-streaming platform YY have been censoring keywords related to coronavirus since January 1, reported Citizen Lab research group.

According to the Citizen Lab report, WeChat has censored coronavirus-related content (including critical and neutral information) and expanded the censorship in February 2020. Content, including criticism of the government, rumours, and speculative information on the pandemic, has been censored.

The apps have also censored the information on Li Wenliang, a doctor who was among the earliest to warn the population about the disease. The Chinese government had detained Li for spreading “fake news”. However, days after Li’s detention, the government confirmed the coronavirus outbreak. Li caught the disease while treating coronavirus patients and died on February 7. His story created a public outcry against the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

The report added that many of the censorship rules are broad and effectively block messages that include names for the virus or sources for information about it. The report noted that such regulations might expurgate important communication related to disease information and prevention.

The report also accused the Chinese government of controlling the information on the disease that was earlier available online and in the media.

The report stated: “Chinese authorities delayed releasing information on the epidemic to the public. When eight individuals (at least two of which were medical experts) tried to warn the public of the then mysterious outbreak on December 30, 2019, they were silenced and punished by local authorities in Wuhan for “spreading rumors” and disturbing social order.”

How did it come to the notice?

The research group of Citizen Lab scripted group chat conversations, including articles on coronavirus, and send them across to three WeChat accounts -- two in Canada and one in China -- for testing. The company then noticed the keywords which didn’t appear in the conversation sent across to WeChat account in China. Citizen Lab observed that around 132 keyword combinations were censored in January. And, the number rose to 516 keywords by the second week of February.

While on YY, 45 keywords were added to a blacklist on December 31, 2019; five of those keywords were removed on February 10, Citizen Lab found. YY’s blacklist is in the app itself, unlike WeChat’s, which uses a remote server for censorship.

WeChat has a monthly active user base of over one billion people — which means that a lot of users may have missed important information about the coronavirus, as well as how to prevent its spread.

Published on March 04, 2020

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