- The popular Chinese messaging app WeChat began censoring hundreds of words related to the coronavirus on Jan. 1, just two days after whistleblower Doctor Li Wenliang first raised concerns about the virus.
- The live-streaming platform YY also began censoring coronavirus-related words on Dec. 31.
- While it is unknown if this was an official directive from the Chinese government, many Chinese companies ‘self-discipline” themselves to keep from being later reprimanded.
- Censoring keywords may have been an attempt to cut down on fear and misinformation, but it could have also blocked people from critical information concerning the virus, in turn, making the epidemic worse.
China Censored Keywords On WeChat
A new report released Tuesday shows that Chinese social media platforms have been censoring hundreds of keywords related to the coronavirus since the day the Chinese government acknowledged the outbreak.
The report, an investigation by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, indicates that the live-streaming platform YY began censoring specific words on Dec. 31. A day later, the popular messaging app WeChat also began to censor words.
By contrast, whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang warned his medical school alumni group about a potential new SARS-like virus on Dec. 30. On Dec. 31, the Chinese government alerted the World Health Organization about that virus, but nothing was officially made public at the time. On Jan. 20, President Xi Jinping first addressed the public, saying that the virus had been “resolutely contained.”
While censorship in China is nothing new, the confirmation that multiple social media platforms censored content concerning the outbreak during its early days paints an alarming picture.
Reportedly, WeChat has an active monthly user base of over a billion people. In fact, according to a 2019 survey, over 50% of people on WeChat heavily rely on the app for information and communication. That’s on top of China already blocking sites like Google and Wikipedia. Plus, doctors reportedly use WeChat to obtain professional knowledge from peers.
In effect, it is possible that blocking so much information around the coronavirus may have caused people to miss important information.
“Countering misinformation and uninformed speculation related to the epidemic may help keep public fear in check and remove information that would mislead people about how best to protect themselves,” Toronto’s researchers said. “However, restricting general discussions and factual information has the opposite effect and limits public awareness and response.”
What Words Were Banned?
It is currently unknown if either platform was following formal directives from the central government. As the researchers note, it is possible this is a case of companies “over-censoring in order to avoid official reprimands.”
According to the report, many Chinese companies practice a form of self-discipline when it comes to adhering to China’s censorship regulations. Essentially, they don’t have to block content before the government tells them to unless they wish to be held liable for the content on their platforms.
On YY, some blocked terms included “Wuhan seafood market,” “SARS variation,” and “SARS outbreak in Wuhan.”
“Virus infected,” “epidemic,” and “atypical pneumonia” were also all blocked, but those words were from YY’s blacklist on February 10th.
On the WeChat side of things, the app reportedly censored 132 known keyword combinations throughout January. It then continued to censor more words as the outbreak worsened in China and by Feb. 15, it had reportedly censored at least 516 keyword combinations.
Notably, almost 200 of those keyword combinations included references to China’s highest-level leaders, 87% of which concerned President Xi. Those combinations include phrases like “Xi Jinping goes to Wuhan” and “Xi Jinping + Epidemic spread.”
Researchers also discovered that references to Dr. Li were censored, as well as combinations of words like “local authorities,” “the central government,” “cover up,” “Wuhan,” “crisis,” “obviously,” and “human-to-human transmission.”
It is currently unknown if WeChat is still blocking all 516 known keyword combinations. In their conclusions, Toronto’s researchers note that like YY, “…it is reasonable to assume that WeChat has also unblocked some keyword combinations as it continues to block others.”
How the Researchers Discovered the Censored Words
Because both platforms use different methods to censor keywords, researchers needed to employ two different techniques to discover the lists.
Solving the answer to YY’s censorship was relatively straightforward. Researchers simply reverse-engineered its application before downloading and decoding its list of censored keywords. This is something the researchers noted they have been doing hourly since February 2015.
WeChat, however, runs a little differently, so to figure out what words were blocked on the app, the researchers created three accounts: two tied to Canadian phone numbers and one tied to a number for mainland China.
One of the Canadian accounts would then create a group chat between all three accounts. The second Canadian account would then send messages with the suspected censored words. Notably, all of those test messages contained only text copied and pasted from news articles.
For example, multiple messages containing the phrase “US Centers for Disease Control” never made it to the Chinese account.
See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Verge) (Business Insider)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”