Citizen Lab, an Internet-based censorship research organization based in Canada, points out in its latest report “Censored contagion: How information on coronavirus is handled in Chinese social networks” than on December 31, 2019, web censors in China they introduced a new list of 45 keywords related to the coronavirus to block online discussions about the outbreak of the new virus (COVID-19). According to the authors of the report, the scope of censorship was extended in February 2020, with the identification of 516 combinations of keywords related to the coronavirus blocked in the WeChat social and messaging application between January 1 and February 15 .
The investigation indicates that in the initial stage of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, censorship halted alerts to the public about the threat of the then unknown virus. Then, the censored content was expanded and included criticism of the main leaders and officials, government policies, speculative stories, any kind of reference to Dr. Li Wenliang and the requests of Chinese citizens for political change. Before being investigated by the police, Dr. Li was one of Wuhan's first doctors to give the first alarm about the coronavirus. He died on February 6, because of the virus, which caused online criticism of the Chinese authorities.
The blockade related to the coronavirus was updated on December 31, 2019
The Citizen Lab investigation found that on December 31, 2019, a day after some doctors – including Dr. Li, tried to alert the public about the spread of a new SARS-like virus, the Chinese web censors updated the list of terms blocked on social media.
YY, Chinese transmission platform, introduced 45 blocked terms related to the coronavirus in its mobile application that same day. The list included “unknown pneumonia in Wuhan” （武漢 不明 肺炎), “unknown SARS” (不明 沙市), “SARS variation” （沙市 變異), “Virus P4 research laboratory ″ （P4 病毒 實驗室),“ Wuhan fresh food markets ”（武漢 海鮮 市場) and“ censored epidemic outbreak in Wuhan ”（武漢 封禁 疫情).
As social media platforms in China are required to follow the instructions of the Propaganda and Cyber Administration authorities, the finding shows that Beijing was fully aware of the outbreak since December 2019. However, instead of informing the public about the threat for health, he banned the news about the virus circulating online. The same day the list of new blocked terms was introduced, eight citizens were arrested for spreading rumors. It was later revealed that they were doctors – including the late Dr. Li – who discussed the outbreak with family members or colleagues in WeChat groups.
Indeed, WeChat adopted a more sophisticated censorship system. While some delicate terms such as “June 4” and “Tiananmen Square” are completely blocked, the application has been using artificial intelligence to detect the semantic meaning of the texts – which means that only a group of keywords would trigger censorship. Therefore, the research team tested at WeChat between January 1 and February 15, 2020, and identified at least 516 keyword combinations that were blocked. If a user sent messages containing those combinations, the messages would remain blocked on the server and would not be delivered to the recipient.
Then the research team grouped the keywords into content categories:
Censored COVID-19-related keyword combinations cover a wide range of topics, including discussions of central leaders' responses to the outbreak, critical and neutral references to government policies on handling the epidemic, responses to the outbreak in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau , speculative and factual information on the disease, references to Dr. Li Wenliang, and collective action.
The censored combinations related to COVID-19 cover various topics, including debates on the responses of central leaders to the outbreak, critical and neutral references to government policies on the management of the epidemic, responses to the outbreak in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, speculative and objective information about the disease, references to Dr. Li Wenliang and collective actions.
Criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping is censored
Among the 516 keyword combinations, 192 are related to senior Chinese officials and their role in handling the outbreak. Moreover, 87% of the terms in this category contain references to the president of China Xi, Jinping, such as “Xi Jinping + formalism + prevention of the epidemic” (習近平 + 形式主義 + 防疫), “Xi Jinping goes to Wuhan” (習近平 到 武漢), “Someone (instead of Xi JinPing) + in person” (某人 + 親自) and “Jinping + spreading epidemic” (習 近 近 + 疫症 蔓延).
After Wuhan was blocked on January 23, many netizens asked why the Chinese leader did not go to the city in person to fight the battle against COVID-19. Instead, Xi commissioned Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to visit the center of the epidemic. These criticisms quickly became a target for censors as shown in previous censorship patterns.
The second category of more censored terms were related to criticisms of the institutions affiliated with the Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and their policies on virus containment. About 138 keyword combinations were found in this category, including word games about COVID-19 which he calls “bureaucracy virus” (官 狀 病毒) as well as “local officials + epidemics + central government + cover-up” (地方官+ 疫情 + 中央 + 隱瞞), “Wuhan + PCC + crisis + Beijing” (武漢 + 中共 + 危機 + 北京), “celebrate + criticize China + two sessions + cover-up” (舉行 + 批評 中國 + 兩會 期間 + 隱瞞) and “PCC + pneumonia + performance + role ”(共产党 + 肺炎 + 表现 + 统治).
In addition to the PPC and the central government authorities, other institutions that activated semantic censorship were, among others, the Chinese Red Cross, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Central Television.
The Chinese Red Cross was widely criticized for corruption in its handling of citizen donations to Wuhan. As for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, speculations have circulated in social media since the end of January that the new coronavirus originated in its laboratory. Meanwhile, CCTV received criticism from citizens for their censorship practices, such as the closing of the comments function of their live broadcast of the Spring Festival Gala.
Criticisms of central and local government policies to fight the outbreak were also widely censored as reflected in keyword combinations such as “centralized quarantine + Wuhan closure” (集中 隔离 + 武汉 封 城), “opinion orientation publishes + Politburo + centralized leadership + Permanent Board ”(傳播 + 判 死刑 + 危害 公共安全 + 病毒) and“ since January 3 + notified to the United States + epidemic ”(1 月 3 日 起 (+) 30 次 向 美方 通报 ( +) 疫情 信息) ..
Although mandatory quarantine measures in Wuhan and other cities have been praised for their effectiveness in curbing the spread of the virus, Wuhan residents were angry that the government offered little support in the early days of confinement, which left the medical workers and their patients in a desperate situation.
Chinese netizens were shocked at a statement by a Heilongjiang Supreme Court that, in their interpretation of current criminal law, stressed that any person who spread the virus intentionally and maliciously to undermine public safety could be sentenced to death. As more cities and regions in China required close contacts of patients with COVID-19 confirmed for quarantine, conflicts occurred between law enforcement officials and citizens who refused to sign the policy. Therefore, the court's statement served as a warning to those who considered the possibility of opposing resistance.
In the daily briefing of the Foreign Minister's spokesman, Hua Chunying, on February 3 that the Chinese government “notified the United States of the epidemic and the temperature taking of China 30 times in total since January 3” generated teasing online, as Chinese citizens learned of the outbreak only after an interview with the pulmonologist Dr. Zhong Nanshan of the CBT on January 20. People were outraged that even in the midst of the outbreak, the CCP leaders still regarded political propaganda as more important than public responsibility.
Doctor Li Wenliang and the requests for political reforms
News about Dr. Li's death and calls for new political reforms also caused censorship. Citizen Lab's research identified 26 combinations in this content category, including “coronavirus + human transmission + Li Wenliang” (冠状 病毒 + 人 传人 + 李文亮), “epidemic + color revolution + Li Wenliang” (疫情 + 颜色 革命 + 李文亮), ” epidemic + virus + Li Wenliang + Central Government ”(疫情 + 病毒 + 李文亮 + 中央),“ Wuhan + 5 requests ”(武汉 + 五大 诉求) and“ Wuhan + Liberate ”(武漢 + 光復). With political vocabulary borrowed as “five lawsuits” and “freeing” from the Hong Kong protests in 2019, many citizens called for reforms in freedom of expression after learning of Dr. Li's death.
Also news about the COVID-19 outbreak is facing censorship in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Around 99 combinations in the investigation were related to the Chinese-speaking regions, such as “Doctors + strike + partial closure of border posts” (醫護人員 + 罷工 + 局部 封 關), “Carrie Lam + puppet” (林 鄭月娥 + 傀儡), ” mask + Taiwan + export + nation ”(口罩 + 台灣 + 出口 + 國家),“ Macau + Government + wear masks ”(澳門 + 政府 + 戴 口罩).
In Hong Kong, the chief executive Carrie Lam's refusal to strengthen controls at border posts after the Lunar New Year was the subject of strong public criticism; It was also speculated that Beijing did not approve border control measures. Medical workers from government-funded public hospitals took the initiative to launch a strike to pressure the Hong Kong government to tighten border control, and Beijing-friendly groups in Hong Kong put pressure on the hospital authority designated by The Government to punish its employees. In Taiwan, the government's decision to ban the export of masks triggered a protest in social networks in Mainland China.
Speculation and facts subject to censorship
The report found 38 keyword combinations related to speculative or unofficial statements such as “The outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan” (武漢 肺炎 疫情 失控), “Wuhan + Infection + tens of thousands” (武漢 + 感染 + 十幾萬) and “Shanghai + background + Drugs + Virus” (上海 + 背景 + 药物 + 病毒).
While some academic studies estimated that the scale of the outbreak could reach hundreds of thousands of people infected in Wuhan, such discussions are not allowed in China. Even when official data showed that there were 49 797 infected in Wuhan on March 6, the Chinese Government never admitted that the city was out of control, even after the closure of the city on January 23, during which many inhabitants of Wuhan asked for help at Weibo and WeChat.
Also the reports of the media affiliated with the Government caused the blockade of WeChat with 23 combinations that included “Important + Control of the Sick + Prohibition of traveling + Virus” (有关 + 疾病 控制 + 旅行 限制 + 病毒) and “Pneumonia + Disease Control and Prevention + Virus + Medical Magazine ”(肺炎 + 疾病 预防 控制 + 病毒 + 医学 期刊).
On March 1, the “Provisions on the ecological governance of the content of online information” became effective. These rules provide a legal framework for applying content platforms to censor what is vaguely defined as “harmful” or “negative information,” including exaggerated headlines, celebrity gossip, vulgar or sexually suggestive content, and “inappropriate comments and descriptions of natural disasters. and large-scale accidents. ”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many critics expressed concern about the fact that the Chinese media did not alert and inform the public and about the repercussions of this informational repression on world public health. Citizen Lab emphasizes the need for international society to address the problem:
Censorship of the COVID-19 outbreak is troubling, and shows the need for thorough analysis of the effects of information control during a global public health crisis. 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. However, restricting general discussions and factual information has the opposite effect and limits public awareness and response.
The censorship of the COVID-19 outbreak is problematic and shows the need for a comprehensive analysis of information control during a global public health crisis. Counteracting misinformation and uninformed speculation related to the epidemic can help keep public fear under control and eliminate information that would mislead the best way to protect yourself. However, restricting general debates and factual information has the opposite effect and limits public awareness and response.
Review the Global Voices special coverage on the global impact of COVID-19.