Social media plays an integral role in the People’s Republic of China. WeChat, for example, is the most popular messaging app in China with over one billion active users. It has become increasingly popular among doctors, who use it to share knowledge with their peers.
Nonetheless, when doctors voiced their concerns about the spread of COVID-19 back in December 2019, information on the spread of the outbreak was censored on Chinese social media. The Chinese public was kept in the dark for three weeks until January 21, when People’s Daily, China’s national newspaper, mentioned the COVID-19 outbreak the same day that China’s president, Xi Jinping, publicly acknowledged that it was a problem.
The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary research laboratory at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. In the past, its reports have uncovered digital security and human rights violations, including a co-investigation with Whatsapp into spyware targeting journalists.
Researchers from the Citizen Lab investigated COVID-19 censorship on Chinese social media — where some of the first reported cases of information control occurred during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Key findings: 516 WeChat keyword combinations censored
Reports of Chinese government suppression of COVID-19 information emerged early into the Wuhan outbreak. The Citizen Lab report released on March 3 investigates how this censorship occurred on two social media platforms: the messaging service application WeChat and the live-streaming platform YY.
The report found that as early as December 31, 2019, the day after Dr. Li Wenliang and colleagues reported the outbreak in WeChat groups, YY began censoring 45 keywords that referenced COVID-19. These included terms pertaining to factual description of COVID-19 as well as references to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, the location considered as the source of the novel coronavirus.
For WeChat, researchers found that the scope of censorship increased in the period from January 1 to February 15, in which 516 keyword combinations were censored. Censored WeChat content covered a wide range of topics, including references to the top leaders in China responsible for handling the outbreak, along with any mentions of government policies in regard to handling the outbreak.
The scope of the censorship also extended to blocking references to COVID-19 in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau; factual information about COVID-19; references to Dr. Li Wenliang; calls for petition; and related speculative information.
While some blocked keyword combinations included critical content regarding government policies or top leaders’ handling of the outbreak, the Citizen Lab reported that combinations of neutral terms, such as “肺炎 [+] 李克强 [+] 武汉 [+] 总理 [+] 北京,” which translates to “Pneumonia + [Chinese Premier] Li Keqiang + Wuhan + Premier + Beijing,” were also blocked from use on the site.
Methodology and consequences
The Varsity contacted the researchers about the evidence used to arrive at the conclusion of censorship.
“We used reverse-engineering and sample testing to track censorship on WeChat and YY,” Lotus Ruan, one of the researchers, wrote. “As such, we were able to observe what keywords triggered censorship on each platform. We then performed content analysis on these keywords to contextual [sic] our findings.”
Such censorship is damaging, given that WeChat is integral to many people’s lives in China. Having readily available information enables clinicians to optimize the treatment of their patients, and it allows epidemiologists to offer real-time guidance on how to contain the outbreak, including allowing for their assessments of various interventions.
“The broad censorship may restrict vital communication related to disease information and prevention among users and end up harming public health,” Ruan wrote.
For example, while scientific literature demonstrated human-to-human transmission, local authorities failed to promptly inform the public. As a result, more than five million people left Wuhan for Chinese New Year or other reasons, spreading the novel coronavirus both within Wuhan and internationally.
WeChat and YY did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment.