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WeChat Censored Hundreds of Words Just Days After Coronavirus Whistleblower Raised Concerns, Study Finds

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  • 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.

Source: University of Toronto – The Citizen Lab
See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Verge) (Business Insider)

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Petition Calls for Ban on Sexualized Fanfiction in South Korea

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  • A petition circulating across South Korea calls for sexualized fanfiction depicting K-pop stars and other real people to be outlawed and classified as sex crimes.
  • The petition particularly focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and argues that they often feature people who are minors.
  • A similar petition was submitted last week to President Moon Jae-in; however, it focused on deep fakes. Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon.

K-Pop Fanfiction Causes Chaos

A petition began circulating across South Korea this week demanding that “real person slash” fanfiction works be outlawed and charged as sex crimes.

“Real person slash” refers to a specific form of fanfiction that most often features sexualized versions of K-pop stars and other real people.

In particular, the petition focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and the age of some of the people being portrayed. The petition notes, “due to the nature of the profession of idols, whose average age is young, many of the victims are still minors or children.”

The petition was submitted to the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House, and currently has over 200,000 signatures. It received a big boost in attention after K-pop star Nancy, from the group Momoland, was secretly filmed by a member of her agency while she was changing backstage. This person then doctored some of the images and uploaded them online.

While Nancy’s case isn’t hand-drawn fanfic, it did fuel outrage at what’s seen as an ineffective approach towards sex crimes in the country. Signers of this petition believe that these fanfics fall into the same category of likely illegality as deep fakes.

Deep Fakes Also Being Targeted

Additionally, just last week deep fakes – which often feature k-pop stars – had its own petition submitted to the president last week with over 300,000 signatures.

Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon Jae-in

For years South Korea has struggled with secret cameras, deep fakes, revenge porn, and more violent sex crimes, such as the infamous Nth Room case that saw certain stars filming themselves having sex with women against their consent.

See What Others Are Saying: (CNA) (The Korea Herald) (South China Morning Post)

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Italy Begins Largest Mob Trial in Decades

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  • Italian prosecutors have started their trial against more than 320 defendants linked to the  ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
  • The charges range from murder and drug trafficking to extortion and money laundering.
  • The case is so large, high-profile, and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
  • Details uncovered could deliver a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealings in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

Hundreds of ‘Ndranghetisti Facing Charges

A major mob trial kicked off in Italy Wednesday involving more than 320 defendants who are part of or associated with the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

In addition to these defendants going on trial, 90 others have elected for a fast-tracked trial elsewhere in Calabria.

While this is a massive affair, it’s still not the country’s largest mob-related trial in history. That happened in the ’80s against the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.

The trial is so high-profile and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, close to the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.

The court is looking at many charges against the defendants, including extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and Mafia association – a term used in Italy’s penal code for members of organized crime.

Breaking Into the Family

Investigators hope that the trial will show just how entrenched organized crime is in the territory, as it’s believed that the ‘Ndrangheta has dealings with local politicians and businessmen. These dealings are believed to not only stem from their illicit activities but also from their legitimate businesses that were initially funded via crime-related funds. Either way, the trial is seen as a major blow for the group.

The organization is made up of multiple groups of tight-knight families that are all interconnected. For years investigators have tried to get more information on the group but following the arrest and prosecution of Luigi Mancuso, a boss in the ‘Ndrangheta, investigators finally had a way to look more closely at 12 families who make up part of the ‘Ndrangheta.

During their investigation police and prosecutors managed to turn some members of those families and use them as informants. They are expected to take the stand as witnesses during the trial. In total, prosecutors hope to put bring out over 900 witnesses.

If successful, this could be a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealing in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

See What Others Are Saying: (ABC News) (LA Times) (Chicago Tribune)

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Hundreds Sickened By Mysterious Illness in India

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  • A mystery illness has hospitalized over 500 people in India and is linked to one death. While most people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital, under 100 people are still being treated.
  • Health officials believe that it is not a viral infection and that it is not tied to the coronavirus pandemic. One official told The Washington Post that it is a “point source epidemic,” but no one knows what is causing it.
  • Blood tests showed patients had high levels of lead and nickel and officials are trying to find what is behind that. Some are also pointing to pesticides used in mosquito treatment as a potential cause behind the outbreak.
  • Still, health officials are puzzled, and the situation comes while India currently trails the United States as the country with the most coronavirus cases. This mystery outbreak is also occurring in one of the hardest-hit states.

Mystery Illness in India

Health officials are still looking for what might be causing a mysterious illness that has sickened hundreds of people this month in India. 

The unidentified illness has put over 500 people in the hospital and taken one life. Most patients have been discharged and recovered but under 100 are still being treated. The disease was first reported on Sunday, and new instances have gone down since the start of the week.

The outbreak started in the state of  Andhra Pradesh. Symptoms range from nausea to anxiety to loss of consciousness, and in some cases, seizures. Some reports say the patient who died suffered from a seizure. Others note they may have fallen as well.

Many patients describe the sickness as hitting them quickly and suddenly as they were going about their day. Some got foggy vision, sore eyes, or incredibly tired before passing out. Many woke up in the hospital and were left with a gap in their memory. 

While the cause of this disease is unknown, health officials do not believe it is tied to the coronavirus in any way as no patients have tested positive. The illness is also not believed to be a viral infection of any kind. 

“What has been established by experts is that this is a case of acute intoxication of toxins. It is not chronic in nature. This is all we know for now,” one high-ranking official told The Washington Post. 

Because cases are already slowing significantly, some believe it might have stemmed from an isolated source or event. 

“This is a point source epidemic,” another official told the Post. “Whatever happened, occurred for one particular day and some people got affected. The number of new patients has dropped.”

Potential Causes

What that source or event may have been remains a mystery that officials are eager to solve. So far, no commonalities have been found between the patients as they all live in different places, are of different ages, and do not test positive for other kinds of illnesses that could be causing or contributing to this outbreak. Clues are beginning to emerge, though. 

One medical official told Al Jazeera that high lead and nickel levels were found in the blood tests of patients. So far, ten have been tested and another 30 will be tested shortly. At first officials thought these levels may have been a result of water contamination, but after water tests were conducted, neither lead nor nickel were found. 

Water contamination as a whole has not been ruled out though. 

“Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programmes as part of Covid-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” the Health Minister of Andhra Pradesh told the Indian Express. “This is just one of the causes we are exploring.”

Another theory at play stems from the fact that organochlorines, which are used as pesticides in mosquito control, were found in some water samples. One of the federal legislators in the state believes that the sickness could be tied to that. A public health director confirmed to Al Jazeera that “it is one of the possibilities.”

Timing With COVID-19

Still, all these ideas simply remain possibilities and officials have far more questions than they have answers about this situation. Health officials from the country and the World Health Organization have established a presence in Andhra Pradesh to get to the bottom of the situation.

The timing of this outbreak is unfortunate as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through India. While daily cases are much lower than they were when it peaked in September in the country, it still remains an issue. 

India is behind the United States in seeing the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases, totaling 9.7 million infections. Around 141,000 people have died in the country. In August, their outbreak was the fastest growing in the world. Andhra Pradesh is among the hardest-hit states in the country. 

Hope is on the horizon as India, like many other countries, could be on track to approve a vaccine within weeks. According to Reuters, health officials will prioritize 300 million people, including healthcare workers, policemen, and those above the age of 50.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Indian Express) (Washington Post)

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