Tracking China’s censorship of news on WeChat

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.

Summarizing the WeChatscope project in a story for Global Voices, Marcus Wang and Stella Fan explained their approach:

“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.

What is your experience of censorship?

  1. Anonymous

    As a Chinese I myself am also concerned about these unseen "red lines". Some of the rumors can be really influential so I'm not going to say anything when that kind of things just disappear from Wechat. The premise is that nowadays almost anyone, as long as they own the cheapest laptop or phone, will be able to post their thoughts on the Wechat, mixed with some far more official media (which has been introduced in the beginning of this piece). However it feels like it is not enough to just vanish those misleading information for the government. They tend to cover all the things and thoughts they do not want people to see which leads to a negative impression that the Internet in China is not "open" enough. Those who with the power would always like to use their power to gain more. Not surprising.

  2. Connor

    I'm surprised WeChatscope hasn't been forced to be taken down yet, since it was started in Hong Kong. It's encouraging that a voice about censorship can exist from inside China.

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