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4 Mar 2020

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)

China: WeChat censors even neutral messages about coronavirus epidemic, digital media research group says

“How WeChat censored even neutral messages about the coronavirus in China”, 3 March 2020

China’s most popular messaging app censored a range of neutral chat group references to the coronavirus epidemic, potentially threatening public access to essential health and safety information, according to a digital media research group.

As well as politically sensitive terms, the researchers found that WeChat censored keyword combinations ranging from discussions of Chinese leaders’ responses to the outbreak, neutral references to government policies on handling the epidemic, responses to the outbreak in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, and references to Li Wenliang, a doctor who died after raising concerns about the outbreak.

The analysis was conducted by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and based on tests of keywords extracted from reports on major news websites in mainland China and Hong Kong…

WeChat, a hugely popular social media app with more than 1.1 billion active monthly users, started to censor group discussions on the coronavirus from January 1, one day after Li Wenliang warned his medical colleagues in a private chat group about a suspected outbreak, the researchers said.

During the period, the platform censored at least 516 keyword combinations – in both simplified and traditional Chinese – directly related to the coronavirus, with a noticeable increase in February…

It was not clear whether WeChat blocked these keyword combinations based on government directives or on its own initiative…

Censorship is tighter on group chats than one-to-one messaging, and on domestic than international users. Overseas users can see websites and messages that are not accessible to users in China, even when they are part of the same chat group.

WeChat did not respond immediately to a request for comment.