Internet censorship in China is a hotly debated topic as the government tightly monitors what people can share online. Even WeChat does not escape censorship and a new report reveals that the service is also thoroughly scanned for even harmless rumors!

A report from University of Toronto's Citizen Lab sheds light on the extent of censorship in China and divulges that in recent years the country's Internet watchdogs have started cracking down on "rumor-mongering." Of course, critics may argue that is a ploy on part of the Communist Party to suppress news and stifle online opposition.

The Citizen Lab report, published on Monday July 20, conducted an analysis over several thousand posts that were posted publically on the social messaging app WeChat's public blog. WeChat is owned by Tencent.

The report notes that censors in China have regularly deleted "posts which contained outright falsehoods, tabloid gossip, and sensationalism-a number of which appear fairly harmless." The analysis of a sample 150 censored posts showed that the Internet watchdogs censored information that pertained to speculations, rumors and political commentary.

"This may be a reflection of the ongoing 'anti-rumor campaign' sweeping Chinese social media," noted Jason Q. Ng, research fellow with Citizen Lab. Adding that the findings "remind us that Chinese Internet censorship is neither monolithic in tactics nor outcome."

For the purpose of the study, the research team downloaded over 36,000 public account posts that were unique and posted between June 2014 and March 2015. These were observed over a period to come to the conclusion what content was censored on WeChat. The researchers discovered that posts that pertained to rumors and politically-charged information was a prime target for censors and "to a much greater degree" than what was thought.

The team also discovered that WeChat posts that had "sensitive keywords" such as communism, corrupt, arrest, repression or arrest were censored more often when compared to other keywords. They also found proof that the censors deployed automatic filters to block posts that had specific phrases and/or words that had been "blacklisted." One such example was the date June 4, which is the day when there was a crackdown on protestors in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Apart from these, censorship is also exercised on WeChat posts that harp on idle tabloid gossip, falsehoods, as well as "harmless" sensationalism.

Some of the "rumors" on WeChat that were clamped down by the censors per the report are as follows:

"Bra = curse" which claimed that bras that have pads could result in breast cancer.

"The situation is serious! It happened last night in Guangzhou, please tell your family" which alleged that fast food joints KFC and McDonalds deploy hormones to breed chickens that have numerous wings and legs.

 "Jack Ma's son died! Can money buy happiness?" which alleged that the son of the Alibaba founder passed away in 2014 and that the founder's wife and daughter were both ailing.

Citizen Lab, however, disclaims that its report on the censorship of WeChat in China is not "meant to be the definitive final word." The collection and analysis of the public posts on WeChat by the research team is ongoing.

Photo: Cheon Fong Liew | Flickr

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