Chinese social media censors blocked neutral information about the coronavirus outbreak when hundreds of keywords and keyword combinations, including “Wuhan seafood market” and “Sars variation” were censored in late December, as doctors sought to warn about the new virus.
Speculative and factual information, and neutral references to the government’s handling of the outbreak, were also blocked on WeChat and other platforms, a report has found.
The report, by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of global affairs and public policy, found that between January and February, “a wide breadth of content” was censored on WeChat and YY, a Chinese live-streaming platform, including criticisms of the Chinese government.
Chinese social media platforms have come under greater pressure to censor content about the Covid-19 illness, which has killed 3,347 and infected more than 97,000. Critical discussion and investigative reports about the virus have been removed from social media sites and Chinese leaders have called for more control over online media to ensure social stability during the outbreak.
“Our findings show that information on Covid-19 is being tightly controlled on Chinese social media,” the report said.
“Censorship of Covid-19 content started at early stages of the outbreak and continued to expand blocking a wide range of speech, from criticism of the government to officially sanctioned facts and information.”
It said censorship of the outbreak was “troubling”.
The report said YY began censoring keywords related to coronavirus on December 31, the day after the late Dr Li Wenliang and seven others sought to warn of the outbreak in WeChat groups.
The report said on December 31 that YY added 45 keywords or combinations referencing the unknown virus to its blacklist, including: unknown Wuhan pneumonia, Wuhan seafood market, Sars variation, Sars outbreak in Wuhan, and Wuhan health committee.
WeChat’s list vastly expanded in February, with 516 new keyword combinations added in the first 15 days, compared with 132 across the month of January.
On WeChat, 192 keyword combinations referenced Chinese leaders’ response to the outbreak, with 87% referencing Xi Jinping and the remainder referencing other key figures from the central government and party structure.
“While a number of these keyword combinations are critical in nature, criticising or alluding to the central leadership’s inability or inaction in dealing with Covid-19, many of them refer to leadership in a neutral way,” the report said.
“Eight of the Xi-related keyword combinations reference his whereabouts during the outbreak, such as whether he had been to Wuhan city.”
Of 138 censored keyword combinations referencing government actors or policies, just 39% were critical in nature.
The death of Li, who was seen as a whistleblower after he was accused of making false statements for warning colleagues of the virus, triggered significant anger and sympathy among Chinese internet users, with censors responding to mounting social media posts and hashtags critical of the government. References to Li accounted for 19 of the censored keyword combinations on WeChat.
Another 99 combinations referenced the virus in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau.
“The majority of keyword combinations referencing [Hong Kong chief executive Carrie] Lam criticise her administration’s failure to respond to the health crisis”. (Source: The Guardian)