China’s most popular messaging app, Tencent-owned WeChat, has been censoring keywords about coronavirus since as early as January 1st, an analysis found. Popular Chinese livestreaming platform YY has been censoring coronavirus content, too.
To make this determination, the research group Citizen Lab scripted group chat conversations and sent them to three test WeChat accounts, two in Canada and one in China. The chat conversations consisted of article headlines and text. The group, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto, sent them from one of the Canadian WeChat accounts to the Chinese one, and observed which messages the Chinese account got. 132 keyword combinations were censored in January, but that number rose to 516 keywords by the second week of February.
On YY, which is similar to Twitch or Mixer, 45 keywords were added to a blacklist on December 31st, 2019; five of those keywords were removed on February 10th, Citizen Lab found. YY’s blacklist is in the app itself, unlike WeChat’s, which uses a remote server for censorship.
Public health officials from China first informed the World Health Organization about the virus at the end of December. The censorship has been going on since at least January 1st, and continued through the most intense part of the outbreak. 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.
Censored keywords included factual information on the disease, references to the government’s epidemic policies, and the name of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was among the earliest to warn the population about the disease. Li caught the disease while treating coronavirus patients and died on February 7th. His story created public outcry against the government’s handling of the coronavirus.
It’s not clear why the two companies decided to censor keywords about coronavirus, though it’s possible they were ordered to do so by the Chinese government. WeChat has close ties with the Chinese government, and the government has already used WeChat and Twitter to track down people Chinese officials felt were sharing negative information about the coronavirus outbreak.
The censorship is particularly pernicious because the WeChat is a crucial part of many Chinese people’s lives, David Jacobson, a professor of global business strategy at SMU’s Cox School of Business and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told BuzzFeed News. “As a platform, you can live your life with it,” Jacobson said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “You can pay for things. You can do so much more.”