Censoring a pandemic — the banned words of WeChat

Domestic News

China has censored private messages and public posts on WeChat since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A new report looks at what words have been verboten.

A caricature of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, that circulated online, even in China for a brief period.

A caricature of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, that circulated online, even in China for a brief period. It was censored by WeChat, according to Citizen Lab.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has released another interesting report on how WeChat censors its users: Censored Contagion II: A Timeline of Information Control on Chinese Social Media During COVID-19.

The data is based on daily tests on WeChat that “collected 2,174 censored keywords related to COVID-19 between January 18 through May 14, 2020.”

  • The censored content is a good guide to “areas of sensitivity for the Chinese government from how the virus is contained in China, international diplomacy, and ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China.”
  • There was also “censorship of health-related information, including the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, as well as references to personal protective equipment supplies and medical facilities.”

 

Some of the more interesting censored terms and word combinations include:

  • Since January 3 + notified U.S. of + epidemic
  • Person-to-person + investigation + research + virus        
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control + coronavirus
  • Cover up the facts + Rèn Zhìqiáng 任志强, and Mr. Ren + missing        (Ren wrote an essay critical of Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 handling of COVID-19, which landed the tycoon in detention)
  • Ambassador to France + epidemic situation + diplomat + foreign minister + non-conformance (see: France summons Chinese ambassador after coronavirus comments spark outrage)
  • Experienced traditional Chinese medicine doctor Trump         
  • Trump + virus + U.S. dollar        
  • Bannon + bio lab        
  • Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮 + publish article + rest in peace + U.S. senator + treats China

Key takeaway

The censors seem to have been concerned with two main things:

  • Spread of information about the virus from unofficial sources, especially in the early days of the pandemic.
  • Circulation of criticism of China in foreign countries and by foreign officials.