Toronto, March 3, 2020 — A new report by researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy reveals that keywords related to the coronavirus have been censored on two popular Chinese social media applications since the early days of the outbreak. The analysis of YY and WeChat indicates broad censorship — blocking sensitive terms as well as general information and neutral references — potentially limiting the public’s ability to access information that may be essential to their health and safety.

YY, a live-streaming platform in China, began to censor keywords related to the coronavirus outbreak on December 31, 2019, a day after doctors (including the late Dr. Li Wenliang) tried to warn the public about the then-unknown virus. These censored terms included factual descriptions of the flu-like pneumonia disease, references to the name of the location considered as the source of the novel virus, local government agencies in Wuhan, and discussions of the similarity between the outbreak in Wuhan and SARS.

“Our research shows that at least one Chinese social media platform, YY, began censoring coronavirus related content in December 2019, which suggests social media companies came under pressure by government authorities to control information about the disease at early stages of the outbreak.” –Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Research Director, Citizen Lab

WeChat, the most popular chat app in China, has been broadly censoring coronavirus-related content, including captious as well as neutral information. This censored content included criticism of government, rumours and speculative information on the epidemic, references to Dr. Li Wenliang, and neutral references to Chinese government efforts on handling the outbreak that had been reported on state media.

Researchers used a combination of reverse engineering and automated testing methods to determine which keywords were blocked on the two social media apps, providing novel insight into this global health emergency. The report also highlights the roles and responsibilities that private companies have in China to manage their platforms, which may help explain the censorship of neutral references and factual information. The broad censorship may be a result of companies over-censoring in order to avoid official reprimands for failing to prevent the distribution of “harmful information” including “inappropriate comments and descriptions of natural disasters and large-scale incidents.”

“The broad censorship of the coronavirus we found is significant because blocking general information during a health crisis can limit the public’s ability to be informed and protect themselves .”- Lotus Ruan, Researcher, Citizen Lab

The results of this report are troubling and show the need for thorough analysis of the effects of information control during a global public health crisis. As the coronavirus outbreak continues, it is important to continue tracking how information is controlled online and the wider consequences of these controls.

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Miles Kenyon
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Title: Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media Authors: Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel, Masashi Crete-Nishihata
Published by: The Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto
Publication Date: Tuesday, March 3, 2020