Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat and YY are always monitored by the government but, during the 2019 coronavirus outbreak, these companies may have blocked important medical information regarding the new disease. This is what a recent study published by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto indicates.
“Censored Contagion — How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media,” released Tuesday, looked at banned keywords on popular Chinese social media platforms to track which topics were being censored. It showed a systematic crackdown on all discussions related to COVID-19.
Lotus Ruan, one of the study’s authors, told the IFCN that Chinese social media platforms shuts down conversations by monitoring for certain banned keywords in a message and preventing that post from being sent to the public feed. Neither the sender nor the receiver are aware of this interference.
“We started to see keywords relating to this coronavirus outbreak showing up in our database in December and January and the numbers kept increasing,” Ruan said.
On WeChat, for example, words like “pneumonia” and “medical journal” were blocked. YY, a video-based social network, blocked keywords like “Unknown Wuhan pneumonia” and “Wuhan Health Committee.”
The coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Dec. 2019, a few days before ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang posted about a new kind of pneumonia on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.
He was arrested soon after and forced to recant his statement. On Feb. 6, Dr. Li died from COVID-19. The virus soon spread beyond Wuhan and, as of March 4, has infected over 95,000 people in roughly 77 countries with more than 3,000 deaths.
China cracked down on social media to stop the spread of “rumors,” but Ruan says the broad brush social media platforms use when censoring certain keywords may have impacted nonpolitical messaging between doctors in China too.
The study found 23 keyword combinations relating to factual information were banned on WeChat. YY banned 45 keywords related to COVID-19 with vague terms like “SARS outbreak” and “epidemic” to cast a wide censorship net.
On Feb. 10, YY unblocked five keywords combinations (“virus infected,” “epidemic,” “pneumonia patient,” “Wuhan pneumonia epidemic” and “atypical pneumonia”), but didn’t offer an explanation.
Ruan said her team was not able to definitively say why certain keywords were chosen over others, but she said leaked documents from previous censorship efforts show the central government has in the past cracked down on the spread of certain types of information.
“Because they want to avoid official reprimands for failing to control information, (companies) might end up over-censoring or self-censoring these keywords,” Ruan hypothesized. The study referenced last month’s warning from the Cyberspace Administration of China threatening punishment for platforms that spread “harmful” content.
Ruan also said the crackdown in China provides a good case study for how public information is managed in a crisis. She added some content moderation may even have benefits.
“In some cases, it is reasonable for companies to maybe monitor or moderate some of the misinformation,” she said, “but it has to be done with transparency and accountability.”
While her team has a front seat to how Chinese social media companies go about their censorship, that information is not readily available to the public.
“These companies haven’t given a guideline explaining why certain things should be censored or what kind of things they’re censoring, so there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lack of transparency,” Ruan said.