Q&A: Citizen Lab documents Chinese censorship of coronavirus keywords

By Committee to Protect Journalists - Asia
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Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who was reprimanded for warning colleagues of a new coronavirus earlier this year, used the messaging app WeChat to share his concerns on December 30, 2019, according to The Wall Street Journal .

“Be careful, our group chat can be suspended,” a contact responded, according to screenshots purporting to show the private exchange. CPJ could not independently verify the screenshots, which were widely cited in online discussions and media reports after Li sickened and later died from the COVID-19 disease.

On December 31, at least some posts involving the virus were already subject to censorship on Chinese platforms, according to a report published this month by Citizen Lab, which is based out of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. China’s sophisticated censorship apparatus blocks foreign social media platforms, while requiring their local counterparts to monitor and control what their users are able to share. CPJ reporting suggests Chinese companies use automation and manpower to block topics that are perennially sensitive, as well as implement propaganda directives issued when news breaks.

Not all information about the ongoing public health crisis has been suppressed—related discussions were easy to find on Chinese social media this month, according to CPJ monitoring. But some posts remained subject to control, including a March 10 interview with another Wuhan doctor that was shared as an audio recording, translated into Korean, and even encoded by WeChat users to evade censorship, according to the China Media Project at Hong Kong University.

Citizen Lab’s report lists dozens of keywords that triggered censorship of posts on both WeChat and YY, a live-streaming platform, between December 31, 2019 and February 15, 2020. Citizen Lab says this restricted factual public health information, as well as opinions about the government’s handling of the outbreak. Cases of COVID-19 have since been confirmed in more than 110 countries, the WHO said in March.

CPJ requested comment on Citizen Lab’s findings from WeChat’s parent company Tencent via their website, and from YY via email, but received no response before publication. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Cyberspace Administration of China, and the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan did not respond to CPJ’s messages requesting comment.

CPJ interviewed Lotus Ruan, a Citizen Lab researcher who co-authored the report, via email in March. Her replies have been edited for length and clarity.

First off, what triggered your interest in analyzing social media censorship in China around the COVID-19 outbreak?

As a research lab focusing on digital technologies and human rights, Citizen Lab has been tracking Chinese social media censorship for years. The COVID-19 outbreak is one of the many events we track.

We noticed that discussions on the coronavirus outbreak started to trend on Chinese social media in early January. Meanwhile, we started to pick up censored keywords on YY and WeChat. As we gathered more data we decided to share our findings, as this is not just any event, but one that pertains to a global public health issue.

In this screenshot illustrating WeChat censorship, a United States account attempts to send messages containing the Chinese terms for “U.S. Centers for Disease Control” and “coronavirus” to a China account, but they do not arrive. (Citizen Lab)

Report by: Ahmed Zidan/CPJ Digital Manager