Chinese messaging app WeChat monitors international users to strengthen the Chinese censorship system, a new study from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found. The app boasts 1.15 billion users around the world. Previously, content surveillance was thought to only affect users registered in China. However, WeChat analyzes international users’ files for content considered “politically sensitive” in China, the study reveals. The data is then used to improve censorship algorithms for China-based users. Citizen Lab’s review of WeChat’s privacy policies found that WeChat does not clearly inform users how their data is used. Notably, Chinese journalists and activists often use WeChat to spread investigative journalism and political commentaries. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, China has cracked down on free speech, particularly with regard to China’s management of the crisis.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, warned that WeChat’s content surveillance could be used for other purposes. WeChat could use the function to identify “certain users and [create] a portfolio about them, feeding other aspects of the [Chinese Communist Party’s] transnational repression apparatus,” Cook told the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The greater capacity for surveillance and censorship is particularly alarming during the Covid-19 outbreak—Reporters Without Borders notes that China has launched a “global disinformation campaign” since the pandemic began. On 5 February, the Cyberspace Administration of China notified the public that it would “seriously deal with” content relating to COVID-19 that was “harmful” and “spread[ing] panic.” The announcement named WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, along with other companies, as a target for “special supervision.” In March, Citizen Lab found that WeChat, among other popular Chinese social platforms, blacklisted over 500 keywords related to the coronavirus.
As Cook notes, WeChat’s strengthened censorship capabilities have troubling implications—and social media censorship has already harmed journalists and citizen journalists. Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) found 897 confirmed cases of Chinese social media users penalized for “online speech or info-sharing about coronavirus” between 1 January and 26 March 2020. Due to data collection difficulties, the list is incomplete and punishments could not be determined about half of the time, though documented cases occurred throughout the country. CHRD found that “police favoured administrative detention (18.5% of the total) and “educational reprimand” (17.8% of the total).” According to Reporters Without Borders, China has jailed 67 journalists and 41 citizen journalists in 2020 thus far. Such journalists are often unable to publish critical pieces in traditional outlets and rely on social media platforms such as WeChat to share information.
Notably, WeChat figured heavily into CHRD’s study—perhaps unsurprisingly given the size of its user base. Though police only cited the social platform used in 219 cases documented by CHRD, 94% of these cases involved WeChat. In some instances, users had their accounts deleted from the app for Covid-19-related posts. This is significant given the uniquely useful nature of WeChat in China. Hong Kong-based tech reporter Li Yuan told the New York Times last year that WeChat is a vital tool for life in China. WeChat is, according to Yuan, “the equivalent of WhatsApp plus Facebook plus PayPal plus Uber plus GrubHub plus many other things… The prevalence has made WeChat an indispensable part of many people’s lives and work.” Regardless of any anxieties that Chinese users may have about censorship, it is quite difficult not to use the app when in China. As Cook notes, many “don’t have the liberty to stop using WeChat… for a lot of people it’s a lifeline.”
It is worth noting that Chinese social media users continuously develop new ways to get around censors. As Amnesty International details, WeChat users employ increasingly creative language to discuss “sensitive topics.” Still, sharing politically sensitive information on Chinese social platforms is challenging, especially during the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, journalists whose work is critical of the regime have been detained or simply gone missing. Two volunteers for the Terminus2049 project (which archives and shares censored articles on social media) were arrested last week, per the Committee to Protect Journalists. A third volunteer with the project has been missing since 19 April. WeChat’s strengthened censorship algorithms put China-based users, particularly journalists and activists, at greater risk.
The Citizen Lab study comes as countries around the world face disinformation crises regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders of various authoritarian countries (and some democratic ones) have cracked down on press freedoms, as the Columbia Journalism Review reports. However, the free flow of accurate information is vital to combatting the outbreak. World leaders cannot bury the truth and make informed, successful policy decisions.
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