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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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Tunisian President Fires Prime Minister, Suspends Parliament Over Deadlock and COVID-19 Response

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President Kais Saied claims his actions are constitutional and have the support of the military, which has already blocked off government buildings. His opponents, however, call the move little more than a coup.


President Makes Massive Changes to Government

Tunisia’s government received a major shakeup after President Kais Saied fired the Prime Minister and froze parliament late Sunday.

The move, according to Saied, was meant to break years of parliamentary deadlock between Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and various political parties that have sturggled to find common ground. However, the timing comes just after a massive protest over how the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic turned violent earlier on Sunday.

Either way, the move risks sparking a confrontation between Saied —who is backed by the army — and various political parties that view his actions as a coup.

The President’s actions have proven cotnroversial. Despite that, he has widepsread support after being elected in 2019 on a platform to fight corrupt politicians.

After the announcement, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in support of his decision to dismiss the Prime Minister and parliament, with many cheering as he appeared among the crowd Sunday night.

In recent months, anger at the ruling government has only increased as many feel the ruling coalition, largely made up of the Islamist Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party, have been ineffective.

It’s a common belief in Tunisia that Ennahda’s rule, alongside its tenuous coalition, helped exacerbate problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the economy shrinking by 8% as tourism plummeted.

One of the President’s supporters told Reuters and other outlets during Sunday’s demonstration, “We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong presence in Egpyt after the Arab Spring, becuase Ennahda has longstanding relationship with the group, although it has sought to distance itself as a more moderate political group over the last few years.

Now, for their part, the ruling coalition has argued that Saied’s move is clearly unconstitutional. Rached Ghannouchi, leade of Ennahda and Parliamentary Speaker, said that he is “against gathering all powers in the hands of one person.” His position isn’t without supporters eithers. Both sides have already gathered throughout the capital and have thrown rocks at each other.

Legalities of Article 80

The question across many minds is whether or not Saied’s actions are actually constitutional.

He claims that under Article 80 of the constitution, he can fire the Prime Minister, suspend parliament for 30 days, and appoint a premier to rule — all of which is true.

However, in order to do that, the Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Speaker need to be consulted; something Parliamentary Speaker Ghannouchi said was never done. It’s unclear what Mechichi’s position is as he’s stayed inside his home all day, though the army says he is not under any kind of arrest.

In addition to those requirements, a Constitutional Court needs to approve the move, and one hasn’t been set up. As the German Foregin Office put it on Monday morning, it seems like Saied is relying on “a rather broad interpretation of the constitution.”

International observers hope a solution will soon be made to keep what seems to be the last functional democracy to come from the Arab Spring from devolving into civil war or dictatorship.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Reuters) (BBC)

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South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys

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The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.


Government Recognition

The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.

The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.

At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.

The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.

Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.

Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.

Longstanding Policy

BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.

Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.

The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.

Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.

See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)

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Over 1 Million Chinese Displaced After Record Rainfall

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The rain has created waist-high waters throughout the capital of China’s Henan province, drastically affecting the lives of its over 10 million inhabitants.


Trapped in a Flood

The Henan province of central China experienced severe rainfall over the last week that has left at least 25 dead and displaced more than 1.2 million people due to severe flooding, according to figures released by Chinese authorities Wednesday.

Meteorologists claim that the sudden, severe rainfall is caused by Typhoon In-Fa colliding with a high-pressure system over Henan province.

The floods have forced people to wade through waist-high water throughout Zhengzhou, the region’s capital. In one tragic incident Monday, 12 people died after they were trapped in the subway amid rising waters. A similar situation occurred Tuesday, causing multiple lines to be trapped in chest-high water for up to three hours before rescue workers managed to save them. Since then, metro authorities have shut down many of Zhengzhou’s rail lines.

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Zhengzhou was hit with an estimated 25 inches of rain, equating to about 87% of its average annual rainfall. At one point, seven inches of rain occurred in less than an hour.

In an effort to alleviate rising waters, authorities breached a nearby dam to release floodwaters on Tuesday, although it’s unclear how much that helped as many dams and rivers in the region have overflowed for days.

Elsewhere in Henan, villages have been cut off by landslides and flooding, killing at least four others and leaving some areas without power for more than 24 hours.

Long Recovery Ahead

The region was finally able to begin recovery efforts Wednesday as conditions have begun to die down.

Despite reduced rainfall, the situation has still proven to be dire, leading President Xi Jinping to issue a statement through state media ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property.

In total, more than 17,000 firefighters have been mobilized for rescue efforts, as well as local volunteers and other rescue crews from other provinces.

Chinese companies have rushed to donate money to help the affected communities, and so far over $300 million has been donated.

It’s likely that for some time, hundreds of thousands in the region will be left without homes as authorities begin the work of ensuring that buildings are safe to return to.

See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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