China's most popular messaging app is censoring coronavirus keywords

The spread of coronavirus in China has been swift and deadly, but you may not find many mentions of it on social media.

That’s because some of the most popular Chinese apps are censoring keywords related to the disease.

Researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada claims that messaging app WeChat and livestreaming platform YY are both clamping down on specific terms.

Academics from the research group Citizen Lab, which is affiliated with the University, sent scripted conversations to a WeChat group conversation. The group chat consisted of three accounts – two in China and one in Canada.

The conversations contained article headlines and text related to the coronavirus and the team found the Chinese account was being censored. They reported that in January there were 132 keyword combinations on the blacklist and that rose to 516 by February.

The same could be said for YY – which is steadily increasing the number of keywords it censors out.

Some of the keywords/phrases on the blacklist include facts about the COVID-19 virus and the name of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was one of the first to warn of the virus and who died from it in February.

‘Keyword combinations include text in simplified and traditional Chinese. We translated each keyword combination into English and, based on interpretations of the underlying context, grouped them into content categories,’ the researchers explained.

‘Censored COVID-19-related keyword combinations cover a wide range of topics, including discussions of central leaders’ responses to the outbreak, critical and neutral references to government policies on handling the epidemic, responses to the outbreak in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, speculative and factual information on the disease, references to Dr. Li Wenliang, and collective action.’

‘Leaked directives and previous research show that Chinese social media companies receive greater government pressure around critical or sensitive events.’

‘While it is not known what specific directives on COVID-19 may have been sent down from the government to social media companies, our research suggests that companies received official guidance on how to handle it as early as December 2019 when the spread of the disease was first made public.

‘Just a day after Dr. Li Wenliang and other medical professionals tried to inform the public about the outbreak, YY began to censor information related to the epidemic on its platform. WeChat restricted content pertaining to government criticism, speculation about the COVID-19 epidemic, and collective action, factual information related to COVID-19 and neutral references to government policies responses outbreak.’

Although Chinese authorities are reporting that cases of the coronavirus are falling within the country, the COVID-19 virus has spread worldwide.

The total number of cases in the UK to 53 – up from 39 since Monday.

The UK government has warned that up to a fifth of the UK workforce could be off sick at the same time, sparking a number of emergency measures in the case of that happening.

The battle plan against coronavirus includes drafting in the army to help emergency services and calling in retired NHS staff for medical assistance.

Police would also be asked to focus only on serious crime and the NHS could delay non-urgent care in the case of a wide-spread outbreak.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said this morning that the UK will see a significant number of COVID-19 cases and ‘some deaths’.

He told BBC Radio Four that  ‘community transmission’ of coronavirus is likely to be happening already, ‘when it’s going from person to person to person and then we pick it up’.

In a separate interview with BBC Breakfast, he said the NHS would come under ‘very high pressure’ but would cope.

He said while ‘extreme’ steps may have to be taken to protect the elderly and ill, for most people this will be a ‘mild or moderate’ disease with the need to shut down entire cities ‘unlikely’.

He said: ‘The NHS will always cope because the NHS is an emergency service which is very good at adapting to what it finds itself with.

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