Surprise! WeChat is censoring messages about coronavirus in China

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As the Chinese government responds to the coronavirus epidemic, it’s also worked to control what information on the virus is available. Since the beginning of January, WeChat — China’s most popular messaging platform — has been censoring keywords relating to the recent coronavirus outbreak .

This is according to Citizen Lab, a research group based in Toronto, who scripted group chat conversations and sent them to three test WeChat accounts — two based in Canada, and the other in China. The scripted messages included news headlines and articles about the virus. Researchers found in January, 132 keyword combinations were censored, but, by February, this had reached 516. 

Caption:An illustration from Citizen Lab showing a user attempting to send messages containing the censored keyword combination.

An article published yesterday by Citizen Lab detailed that the censored content included criticism of the Chinese government, rumors and speculative information on the epidemic, neutral references to Chinese government’s efforts on handling the outbreak, and references to Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor who was among the earliest to try and warn the public about the virus. He  died in February after contracting it while treating patients.

[Read: Alibaba’s new AI system can detect coronavirus in seconds with 96% accuracy]

Researchers at Citizen Lab found 19 censored keyword combinations that referenced Dr. Li Wenliang, such as  “Epidemic + Virus + Li Wenliang + Central government” and “Coronavirus + People-to-people transmission + Li Wenliang.”

In addition to WeChat, the report also found that the popular Chinese livestreaming app YY was discovered  to be censoring keywords and vital information related to the the COVID-19 outbreak. This had been happening since December 31st, 2019 — the day after doctors tried to warn the public about the virus. 

In a statement to Buzzfeed, a Tencent spokesperson said: “We have rolled out a variety of tools and features on the platform to help users stay safe and protect themselves against the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic. Importantly, this includes debunking false rumors.”

WeChat currently has over 1.15 billion monthly active users, and censoring important information about the outbreak only puts them in more danger. At the time of writing, the total number of coronavirus global cases has passed 93,000 with more than 3,200 fatalities, and China announced a decline in reported infections. 

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