How China tried to hide the coronavirus: censorship and deception

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China’s government and technology companies have long been known to distort data and impose restrictions on what its citizens can see and discuss. But a Citizen Lab report suggests that the apparent cover-up of the coronavirus began earlier than thought. Since China officially reported the outbreak, its content has been censored, the report said. Terms related to “coronaviruses” have been censored on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as on live-streaming sites such as YouTube and Sina Weibo, Citizen-Lab said. They found that 500 different keyword combinations were censored between January 1 and February 15. The level of censorship has since expanded, with the keyword combination “coronavirus-related” blocked on social media. The research notes that censorship has been curbed in the past, with the word “coronavirus” removed too. Meanwhile, the ominous Cyberspace Administration of China has ensured that the country’s social media has begun censoring the spreading epidemic.

According to a cyber research group affiliated with the University of Toronto, censorship of content began as early as December and has since expanded to include the word “coronavirus” and other terms such as “fake news,” “cyberbullying” and “terrorism.”Social media companies are subject to strict laws requiring them to censor content that undermines social stability or is critical of central government. WeChat, which largely censors content related to the virus and the government’s response to it, stepped up its censorship of coronavirus — related content — in January. YY began censoring content related to “coronaviruses” in February, according to Citizen Lab, and has since restricted access to a number of viruses – keywords on the social media platform. It is unclear whether the health organization on Wuhan’s online platform received explicit instructions from the central or local government to censor the information, or whether it did so on its own. What is clear, however, is that the current system of information control provides incentives for government orders and prior restraint. Chinese – Language content about the virus and its impact on public health has also been blocked. Chinese social media platforms have come under pressure to censor information about Covid-19 disease, which now has killed 109,786 people and infected 1,792,779. Critical discussion and investigative reports about the virus have been removed from the social media sites. During the outbreak, China’s leaders called for “social stability to ensure social stability.” The report found that Chinese censors also blocked neutral information on coronavirus outbreaks on social media when they pointed out the outbreaks on WeChat and other platforms. Hundreds of keywords and keyword combinations, including “Wuhan Seafood Market” and “Sars Variation,” were censored as doctors sought to warn against the new virus. Chinese social media platforms began censoring the content of their users as early as December, a Toronto-based cyber research group says. The report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at the University of Toronto found that a wide range of content was censored on live streaming platforms, including criticism of the Chinese government. 

Chinese messenger app WeChat, owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd, and streaming video streaming platform Weibo reportedly blocked keyword combinations, including criticisms of President Xi Jinping and policies related to the virus. The results collected between December and February indicate that the company was given permission to manage virus levels in the early stages of the outbreak, which extended beyond the testing period. Internet users in the country have found innovative ways to overcome online censorship. After Ren Wu’s piece was blocked, people began posting versions of it on social media sites such as Sina Weibo and WeChat under the hashtag # anti-censorship hashtag and other social media hashtags. Some translated the article into foreign languages, including Korean, Japanese, English and German, while others peppered it with emoji to make it harder for censorship programs to track down the text. According to the Canadian research group Citizen Lab, the live-streaming platform YY began censoring words related to coronaviruses in late January, while WeChat began censoring “coronaviruses – related content” in early February. The censors also cracked down on personal chat accounts, deleting messages, freezing accounts and limiting criticism of the Chinese government’s handling of the epidemic. When users complained about the censorship using the hashtag # weChat _ Blocked _ Account, posts using the hashtag were deleted too.

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