Blog 18: Censored contagion on Chinese social media

Contributed by Masashi Crete-Nishihata
Masashi is the Associate Director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The Citizen Lab just published a report: Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media, authored by Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel and Masashi Crete-Nishihata.  

Among the key findings in this report, we show that YY, a popular live-stream platform based in China, began to censor keywords related to the coronavirus outbreak on December 31, 2019, only one day after doctors (including the late Dr. Li Wenliang) tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus. 

By reverse engineering the YY application, we found that keywords like “武汉不明肺炎” (Unknown Wuhan Pneumonia) and “武汉海鲜市场” (Wuhan Seafood Market) began to be censored on YY weeks before central authorities publicly acknowledged the outbreak and prior to the virus even being named.

Our experiments also found that another popular social media platform, WeChat, has been broadly censoring coronavirus-related content, including criticism of the government and references to Dr. Li Wenliang, from January 2020 and then expanding substantially through February. Between January 1 and 31, 2020, we found 132 keyword combinations were censored in WeChat. The number increased to 384 in a two week testing window between February 1 and 15.

Social media plays a major role in Chinese society and in particular among the Chinese medical community. Although many social media platforms have wrestled with how to combat misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19, our research shows China’s social media platforms were either directly instructed or under pressure to block a much broader range of content, including criticism of the government’s handling of the outbreak. 

We also find that censorship on both platforms lacks transparency and accountability: there are no public details about censorship regulations, and users are not notified if a message containing sensitive keywords is censored from their chat conversations. Furthermore, our discovery of keyword filtering on YY before the virus was even named strongly suggests that at least one social platform in China received government directives to censor content at early stages of the outbreak.

This type of systematic censorship of social media communications about disease information and prevention harms the ability of the public to share information that may be essential to their health and safety.

You can read the full report (including details on our methods and links to our keyword database) here.

FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION

Assume you are having dinner tonight with Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China.  What arguments would you make to him to convince him that such censorship does not benefit China, and ultimately damages the country.

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