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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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200 Children Seeking Asylum in the U.K. Are Missing 

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The missing include at least 13 children under the age of 16. 


Children Missing From Hotels

There are 200 asylum-seeking children missing from government care in the United Kingdom according to the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office.

When children are seeking asylum in the U.K. alone or separated from their parents, the government puts them up in hotel rooms for temporary accommodation. They have done so since 2021 and have temporarily accommodated 4,600 children in that time. However, Simon Murray, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office, said that 200 of the children placed in those hotels are missing, including at least 13 who are under the age of 16.

In response to this information, a collection of more than 100 charities sent a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the end of the procedure of placing kids in hotels over safety concerns. The letter says that these children are at risk of trafficking and exploitation by staying in these hotels alone.

Other officials have echoed these concerns, claiming these hotels are targets for organized crime where people use these vulnerable children for labor or trafficking.

Parliament Calls Incident “Horrific”

Murray told the House of Lords on Monday that despite the media reports, his department does not know of any kidnapping cases, though they are investigating. He went on to say there are many reasons why children go missing. 

However, lawmakers were not appeased by Murray’s assurances. In a later debate, one member of Parliament called the missing cases “horrific” and another said that it was “putting children at risk.”  The children’s commissioner for England also reportedly chimed in asking for, quote “assurances on the steps being taken to safeguard the children.” 

Murray went on to say that the use of hotels for asylum-seeking children will hopefully be phased out as soon as possible but did not give a timeline. 

The nonprofit Refugee Council called on the government in a tweet to spare no expense in the location of these missing kids.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (The Guardian) (The Telegraph)

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100,000 U.K. Nurses Launch Biggest Strike in NHS History

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Opposition leader Keir Starmer called the strike “a badge of shame on this government.”


The NHS Grinds to a Halt

Some 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the United Kingdom’s largest nursing union, launched a historic 12-hour strike Thursday after the government refused to negotiate on higher pay.

The work stoppage, which spans England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is only the second in the RCN’s 106-year history and the largest the NHS has ever seen. It marks the breaking point for many underpaid nurses and the culmination of a years-long decline in the NHS’s quality of care, put under increasing stress by severe staffing shortages.

Although most NHS staff in England and Wales received a pay rise of around £1,400 this year, worth about 4% on average for nurses, they say it has not kept up with inflation as Britain plunges deeper into a cost-of-living crisis.

When inflation is accounted for, nurses’ pay dropped 1.2% every year from 2010 to 2017, according to the Health Foundation.

Meanwhile, the number of patients waiting for care has reached a record 7.2 million in England, or over one in eight residents, more than double what it was seven years ago.

In July, the cross-party Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee estimated the staffing shortfall could be as high as 50,000 nurses and 12,000 doctors, what one MP called the “greatest workforce crisis in history.”

Many nurses argue that boosting pay will help hospitals recruit more staff.

The RCN demanded a pay raise 5% above the retail rate of inflation, which amounts to a 19% increase, but both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the government’s health secretary have claimed that’s not affordable.

During Thursday’s strike, partial staffing continued to remain open for urgent care such as chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, and children’s accident and neonatal units.

Sunak and Starmer Brawl in Parliament

Labor leader Keir Starmer grilled Sunak during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on the upcoming strike.

“Tomorrow will be the first-ever nationwide nurse’s strike,” he said. “All the Prime Minister has to do to stop that is to open the door and discuss pay with them. If he did, the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief. Why won’t he?”

“We have consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes that there are,” Sunak replied. “Last year, when everyone else in the public sector had a public sector pay freeze, the nurses received a three-percent pay rise.”

Starmer fired back: “Nurses going on strike is a badge of shame for this government. Instead of showing leadership, he’s playing games with people’s health.”

Sunak called Starmer’s demand that he reopen negotiations with the RCN “just simply a political formula for avoiding taking a position on this issue.”

“If he thinks the strikes are wrong, he should say so,” Sunak said. “If he thinks it’s right that pay demands of nineteen percent are met, then he should say so. What’s weak, Mr. Speaker, is he’s not strong enough to stand up to the union.”

While Starmer has called on Sunak to negotiate with the RCN, he has not explicitly backed the 19% pay raise himself.

Unless the government returns to the bargaining table, the RCN plans to launch a second round of strikes on Dec. 20 to be followed by ambulance strikes that Wednesday and the next.

If the government still refuses to budge, the union said in a statement that nurses will strike for longer periods in more places starting in January, disrupting more health services.

Other industries are also set to see work stoppages this month, including workers on railways, buses, highways, and borders, as well as teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers, and paramedics.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (CNN) (The Guardian)

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Fortnite Developer Sued By Parents for Making the Game as “Addictive as Possible”

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One child mentioned in the lawsuit played over 7,700 rounds of Fortnite in two years.


Epic Games Sued 

A Quebec City judge recently approved a 2019 class-action lawsuit accusing Fortnite developer Epic Games of deliberately making Fortnite addictive.

The parents who brought forward the lawsuit claim their children have become so obsessed with the game that in some cases, they’ve stopped eating, showering, or socializing. The lawsuit claims that these kids have played thousands of games since Fortnite’s release in 2017. In one example, a teenager played over 7,700 games in less than two years. 

If the lawsuit succeeds, players addicted to Fortnite living in Quebec since September 2017 could receive compensation. The plaintiff’s attorney, Philippe Caron, reports that over 200 parents outside the lawsuit have reached out to him, saying their child’s well-being has diminished since downloading Fortnite. He told The Washington Post that they are very confident about their case. 

Epic Games Responds

“We plan to fight this in court,” Natalie Munoz, a spokesperson for Epic Games said to The Post, “We believe the evidence will show that this case is meritless.” 

Munoz also said that Fortnite does allow parents to supervise their child’s playtime and require permission for purchases.

The parents involved in the lawsuit are claiming that they were not aware of the dangers playing Fortnite could pose for their children. 

“If she had been informed by the defendants of the risks and dangers associated with the use of FORTNITE,” the lawsuit says of one guardian. “She would have categorically refused to allow the game to be downloaded.” 

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

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