There is currently a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, with misleading preventative measures being the most prevalent at the moment. It also looks as though social media platforms in China are limiting what its users are able to view on the subject while online.
This according to research firm Citizen Lab, which says WeChat has been censoring specific keywords related to the coronavirus, with evidence pointing to censorship as early as 1st January.
The firm explains that it discovered the censorship tactics after it scripted group chat conversations and distributed them to three specific test WeChat accounts, with one being in China and the other two in Canada.
Comparing the message exchanges between the Chinese and Canadian accounts, researchers found that 132 keyword combinations were censored for the former during January. This figure significantly in the second week of February to 516 censored keyword combinations, pointing to a clear algorithmic design to stop specific information from being shared on the platform.
“WeChat broadly censored coronavirus-related content (including critical and neutral information) and expanded the scope of censorship in February 2020. 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,” the team at Citizen Lab notes.
Censorship in China is nothing new when it comes to the access of information online, but as Citizen Lab correctly points, doing so for something as important as the coronavirus epidemic could prove detrimental to efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
“Many of the censorship rules are broad and effectively block messages that include names for the virus or sources for information about it. Such rules may restrict vital communication related to disease information and prevention,” Citizen Lab adds.
It wasn’t only WeChat which suffered from mass coronavirus-related censorship, with researchers finding YY (a Twitch or Mixer-esque service) had blacklisted an estimated 45 keywords on New Year’s Eve.
As such it looks like those in charge in China are keeping as close an eye on the spread of vital information about the coronavirus, as they are with the actual epidemic itself.
You can read the full Citizen Lab report, as well as the methods employed for censorship, here.[Source – Citizen Lab]