Skip to main content

One day after a group of Chinese doctors took to social media to warn of the emergence of a mysterious, SARS-like virus, one of China’s most popular live-streaming platforms quietly added nearly four dozen keywords to its blacklist, including “Unknown Wuhan pneumonia,” “SARS variation” and “SARS outbreak in Wuhan.”

The world would soon learn of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which likely originated in the city of Wuhan and to date has resulted in almost 90,000 confirmed cases of the resulting illness, COVID-19, and 3,000 deaths globally.

China has long censored what its citizens can see and say online. But a new report by researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy shines a light on the broad scope of suppressed information about the virus, and its public-health implications.

As the coronavirus spreads, China is losing its control online

Using a combination of reverse engineering and automated testing methods, researchers looked at WeChat, China’s widely used messaging, social media and mobile payment app, and YY, a popular live-streaming platform.

They found that censored materials included government criticism and references to ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who died six weeks after sounding the alarm and whose suppression and mistreatment galvanized the country. But the censorship extended to even factual descriptions of the flu-like pneumonia and public-health messaging on hand-washing and the wearing of face masks. Such censorship can threaten vital communication related to disease information and prevention, the report said.

“What is interesting, or what is significant, about this case is that this event is more of a public-health issue rather than just a party congress or political events that do not affect a wider range of people," said Lotus Ruan, a lead author of the report and a research fellow at the Citizen Lab.

During the study period between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15, researchers identified 516 keyword combinations on WeChat related to COVID-19 that blocked content. They included a wide range of topics, including discussions of central leaders’ responses to the outbreak, Dr. Li and collective action.

A 2016 report by the Citizen Lab said WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, implements a “one app, two systems” model with heavier censorship for Chinese users and less restrictive rules for overseas users. However, Canadians have observed apparent censorship on the app as well.

Ou Kehui, a resident of Richmond, B.C., said her account was suspended twice in February after she shared videos from Chinese lawyer and self-described citizen journalist Chen Qiushi in a group chat. Mr. Chen had posted videos from Wuhan and has not been seen since Feb. 6.

Ms. Ou added that certain content she shares is often not received by users in China – censorship that would often go unnoticed initially.

According to WeChat’s website, an account could be blocked for several reasons, including the user is reported for sending lewd content, violent materials, scams, inappropriate rumours, or annoying ads, or the user has been reported by other users multiple times.

Taylor Zhao, also a Richmond resident, last month had his WeChat account suspended mere hours after he had a text conversation about an online petition calling on China’s national legislature to protect citizens’ right to free speech in the wake of Dr. Li’s death.

The petition, started by Chinese academics and signed by hundreds of Chinese citizens, listed five demands of Beijing, including that Feb. 6 be proclaimed “National Freedom of Speech Day (Li Wenliang Day).”

Mr. Zhao said he suspects the suspension was related to a conversation he had with one of those academics, Xu Zhangrun, who himself had been punished for speaking out against the removal of term limits for President Xi Jinping.

“We live in Canada, a free land, but [the app] has us bound hand and foot, and [we] do not dare to speak,” said Mr. Zhao, a Canadian citizen. “Our freedom is actually restricted. We are not living in a totally free environment.”

The report concluded that 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," the report said.

"However, restricting general discussions and factual information has the opposite effect and limits public awareness and response.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe