CitizenLab discovered over 500 keywords related to coronavirus are being censored across WeChat and YY.
Chinese social media app WeChat and live-streaming app YY have been censoring keywords related to the coronavirus since Dec. 31.
According to a study from Citizen Lab, a research body from the University of Toronto, doctors attempted to inform people about coronavirus through social media. However, Citizen Lab found that keywords translated as “Unknown Wuhan Pneumonia” and “Wuhan Seafood Market” were being censored on YY.
Censorship on YY is done on the client side, meaning certain keywords are censored from the device and updated over time like any other app update. Citizen Lab has been tracking these developments since 2015. WeChat, however, conducts censorship from its servers based on a combination of keywords.
In order to confirm that information was being censored, Citizen Lab set up scripted group chat conversations based on article headlines and text, and then sent them to WeChat accounts in Canada and China. In the tests, messages with the keywords “US Centers for Disease Control” and “coronavirus” were sent to the Canadian WeChat account, but did not make it to the Chinese account.
Citizen Lab says that the number of words being censored is also growing; 132 keyword combinations related to COVID-19 were censored in January, rising to 516 by February. On YY, there were 45 censored keywords related to the coronavirus—40 in simplified Chinese and five in traditional Chinese—but five of those were removed on Feb. 10.
As to why the censorship is happening, Citizen Lab explains, “Leaked directives and previous research show that Chinese social media companies receive greater government pressure around critical or sensitive events. While it is not known what specific directives on COVID-19 may have been sent down from the government to social media companies, our research suggests that companies received official guidance on how to handle it as early as December 2019 when the spread of the disease was first made public.”
This is not the only instance where China has censored content related to the coronavirus. Plague Inc., the popular game and pandemic simulator, was removed from China’s iOS App Store because it “‘includes content that is illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China and has been removed from the China App Store.”