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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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Hurricane Ian Makes Landfall in Cuba as Florida Braces for Devastation

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When it hits the sunshine state, Ian is expected to be a category 3 hurricane.


Ian Lands in Cuba

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Cuba Tuesday morning as a major category 3 storm, battering the western parts of the country with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned that life-threatening storm surges, hurricane-force winds, flash floods, and mudslides are expected. Officials said that around 50,000 people have been evacuated as of Tuesday afternoon. 

According to reports, flooding has damaged houses and tobacco crops in the region, and widespread power outages have also been reported.

As dangerous conditions continue in Cuba, Ian is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico and pass west of the Florida Keys later on Tuesday, becoming a category 4 before the end of the day.

Officials predict it will drop back to a category 3 before making landfall as a major hurricane in Florida, which it is expected to do Wednesday evening.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said that Ian is currently forecast to land “somewhere between Fort Meyers and Tampa.” She added that the storm is expected to slow down as it hits Flordia, extending the potential devastation.

Uncertain Path

Forecasts of Ian’s path, however, remain uncertain, leaving residents all over Florida scrambling to prepare for the storm.

Schools have closed down, airports have suspended operations, and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has activated the National Guard and taken steps to ensure power outages can be remedied, warning that many should anticipate losing power.

There are also numerous storm and surge watches and warnings in place across Florida and in parts of Georgia and South Carolina.  

Evacuation warnings have been implemented throughout many parts of Florida, and officials have said that around 2.5 million people were under some kind of evacuation order by Tuesday afternoon.

Mandatory evacuations have been put in place in several counties, largely focused on coastal and low-lying areas. Some of those evacuation orders have extended to parts of Tampa — Florida’s third-largest city.

Tampa has not been hit by a major hurricane in over a century — a fact that just further emphasizes the unusual path this storm is taking. 

Florida’s Division of Emergency Management has a tool to track evacuation zones, as well as more resources at floridadisaster.org. For those looking for shelter, the Red Cross has a system to find one nearby. 

Continued Threats

The current evacuations are being driven by a number of very serious threats posed by Hurricane Ian. According to the NHC, hurricane-force winds, tropical storm conditions, heavy rainfall, and flooding are expected throughout much of the region.

“Considerable” flooding is also expected in central Florida and predicted to extend into southern Georgia and coastal South Carolina.

One of the biggest threats this hurricane poses is storm surge flooding at the coast — which has been a driving factor in the evacuations.

“Life-threatening storm surge looks increasingly likely along much of the Florida west coast where a storm surge warning is in effect, with the highest risk from Fort Myers to the Tampa Bay region,” the NHC warned Tuesday.

As many experts have pointed out, these dangerous threats of storm surges and catastrophic flooding have been drastically exacerbated by climate change. Specifically, sea level rise driven by climate change makes surges and flooding more likely and more extreme.

According to Axios, a profound example can be found in St. Petersburg, Florida — which is expected to be impacted by Ian — and where sea levels have risen by nearly nine inches since 1947.

That, however, is not only the real-time impact of climate change that is evident from this storm. In addition to climate change being “linked to an increase in rainfall from tropical storms and hurricanes,” Axios also notes that Ian “has been rapidly intensifying over extremely warm sea surface temperatures in the Caribbean that are running above average for this time of year.”

“Climate change favors more instances of rapidly intensifying storms such as Hurricane Ian, due to the combination of warming seas and a warmer atmosphere that can carry additional amounts of water vapor,” the outlet added.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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Giorgia Meloni Claims Victory in Far-Right Shift for Italy

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Her party has neofascist roots, and she has praised Mussolini in the past.


An Election Without Precedent

Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party grabbed the largest share of votes in Italy’s national election by a wide margin, giving the post of prime minister to the first woman and most right-wing politician since Benito Mussolini.

She declared victory early Monday morning after exit polls showed her party overwhelmingly in the lead with at least 26% of the vote, making it the dominant faction in the right-wing coalition, which got 44%.

The other two parties in the alliance — Mateo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia — took 9% and 8% of the vote, respectively.

The center-left alliance only garnered 26% of the vote, with 63% of votes counted, according to the interior ministry.

Voter turnout dropped to a record low at only 63.91%, nine points below the rate in 2018, with turnout especially dismal in southern regions like Sicily.

Meloni is set to become prime minister in the coming weeks as a new government is formed, and the rest of Europe is bracing for what many see as a neofascist demagogue to take power in the continent’s third largest economy.

Speaking to media and supporters following the preliminary results, Meloni said it was “a night of pride for many and a night of redemption.” She promised to govern for all Italians and unite the country.

But her relatively extreme politics — opposed to immigration, the European Union, and what she calls “gender ideology” — unsettles many who fear she will roll back civil rights and form a Euroskeptic alliance with other far-right leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The Next Mussolini?

During the election, Meloni stressed that she is a conservative, not a fascist, but opponents point to her rhetoric, past statements, and party’s history as evidence to the contrary.

“Either you say yes or you say no,” she howled to Spain’s far-right Vox party earlier this year. “Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby. Yes to sex identity, no to gender ideology. Yes to the culture of life, not the abysm of death. Yes to the university of the cross, no to the Islamist violence. Yes to secure borders, no to mass migration. Yes to the work of our citizens, no to big international finance. Yes to the sovereignty of peoples, no to the bureaucrats in Brussels. And yes to our civilization.”

Meloni co-founded Brothers of Italy in 2012 as an alternative to the more mainstream right-wing parties. It has roots in the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a neofascist party that sprouted in the wake of World War II to continue Mussolini’s legacy after his party was banned. The Movement’s symbol — a tricolor flame — remains on the Brothers of Italy’s Flag today, and Meloni has refused to remove it.

She joined the MSI’s youth branch in the 1990s and went on to lead it after the party was renamed the National Alliance.

“I believe that Mussolini was a good politician, which means that everything he did, he did for Italy,” Meloni said at the time.

For the first decade, Brothers of Italy struggled to win more than a single-digit percentage of the vote, and it only garnered 4% in the 2018 election.

But in 2021 and 2022, it distinguished itself as the only opposition party to the unity government that fell apart last July, causing its popularity to inflate.

But the party still wrestles with its fascistic roots; last week, it suspended a member who was running for parliament because a local newspaper revealed that he had made comments supporting Adolf Hitler.

In an August video, Meloni promised to impose a naval blockade in the Mediterranean to interdict Libyan refugees from crossing to Southern Europe on boats. She has also discussed pulling Italy out of the Eurozone or even the E.U. entirely, but she moderated her rhetoric toward Europe during the election.

Italy has received some 200 billion euros in European pandemic recovery funds, and it is set to receive more unless the Union punishes Meloni’s government for democratic backsliding.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Associated Press) (NPR)

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Iranian Protests Sparked by Death of Mahsa Amini Spread Internationally

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Anger initially directed at the police has now shifted to the Islamic regime itself, with Iranian-Americans protesting outside the U.N. Headquarters as their country’s president spoke inside.


Hijabs Go Up in Flames

The largest protest movement in recent years has gripped Iran since the so-called morality police allegedly beat 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for violating the dress code last week, leading to her later death.

Demonstrations spread from the capital Tehran to at least 80 other cities and towns, with videos on social media showing women burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in defiance.

In response, the government has gradually extended a virtual internet blackout across the country, blocking access to What’s App and Instagram.

To prevent protests from spreading, Iran’s biggest telecom operator largely shut down mobile internet access again Thursday, Netblocks, a group that monitors internet access, said in a statement, describing the restrictions as the most severe since 2019.

Clashes between police and protestors have killed some, but death toll reports on Thursday were conflicted. The Associated Press tallied at least nine people dead, while Iran’s state television put the number at 17, and a human rights group estimated at least 31 deaths.

The violence began on Saturday, shortly after the news that Amini had died the day prior in the hospital where she was comatose for three days.

Previously, the morality police arrested her for violating Islamic law requiring women to cover their hair with a head scarf and wear long, loose-fitting clothing.

Multiple reports and eyewitness accounts claimed that officers beat her in the head with batons and banged her head against one of their vehicles, but authorities have denied harming her, saying she suffered a “sudden heart failure.” Her father told BBC that she was in good health and that he had not been allowed to view her autopsy report.

“My son was with her. Some witnesses told my son she was beaten in the van and in the police station,” he said.

Surveillance footage was released showing Amini collapsing inside the hospital after grabbing her head, seemingly in pain.

From Anti-Hijab to Anti-Regime

Although the protests began in reaction to Amini’s death and Iran’s repressive policing, they quickly flowered into a mass opposition movement against the Islamic regime as men joined ranks of demonstrators and chants of “Death to the dictator!” broke out.

The anger was directed at the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as President Ebrahim Raisi, who attended the United Nations General Assembly this week. Iranian-Americans rallied outside the U.N. Headquarters Wednesday to voice their discontent as Raisi addressed the assembly.

“The hijab is used as a weapon in Iran,” one woman told CBS in Los Angeles. “It is a weapon against the West, and women are used as pawns.”

“Let this be the George Flloyd moment of Iran,” she added.

There have also been demonstrations of solidarity in countries such as Lebanon, Germany, and Canada.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)

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