In China today, it is nearly impossible to live life without WeChat. What began as a chat app, similar to WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, has become an essential tool for everything from reading the news to paying for your morning beverage of choice.
After Facebook, WeChat is the most popular social media service in the world. The company now boasts more than 1,0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts. These public accounts are where many people in China get their everyday news and information. While many news outlets still maintain their own websites, virtually all media in the country also use WeChat as a publishing platform. Some publish their stories only to their WeChat pages, where followers can comment or discuss the stories of the day.
But of course, not all comments — or even media stories — are permitted to stay online. With its massive user base and powerful social influence, WeChat has become a major implementer of China’s rigorous censorship regime. What is published on WeChat — and what the company censors at the state’s behest — is a powerful indicator of government concerns about sensitive political issues.
With no transparency about what is censored or why, citizens and researchers are left to speculate and guess where the red lines are drawn.
A group of researchers at the University of Hong Kong have been working to track technical censorship on WeChat, using an innovative Web “scraping” system that captures millions of posts from the platform’s most popular public accounts and makes them available to others in formats that can be visualized, mapped and understood in the context of time.
“Our team tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news through our computer program which visits (and periodically revisits) published articles and records the contents. When the system sees that a post has disappeared, it is detected as censored. A copy of the post is then restored in the database and made available for public access.”
By the end of 2018, the group had identified roughly 11,000 posts that had been censored. These posts reflected some of the hottest and most controversial media stories and scandals of the year, ranging from the China-US trade war, to tax fraud allegations against X-Men actress Fan Bingbing, to the #metoo movement at universities across China.
Explaining the context and possible reasons for censorship to a global audience is the subject of an article series on Global Voices, written in English and translated into multiple languages by volunteers. The stories describe in vivid detail how online speech in Chinese platforms can often initially be as vibrant, argumentative or controversial as elsewhere — despite censorship.
The WeChatscope project sheds light on what often feels like a black box of censorship policies and practices that are crafted and carried out by the Chinese government — and the companies required to comply with state demands. It also offers new possibilities for tech experts inside and outside the country to seek new ways to circumvent censorship in China.