Last week, Chinese literary critic, writer, poet, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and long-time civil rights activist Liu Xiaobo died of terminal liver cancer. Ever since then, China’s web of censorship and online suppression is reportedly working around the clock to prevent any sort of discussion or movement that could build around the outspoken activist’s work.
According to the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, there was a significant shift in Chinese censorship patterns following Liu’s death. The Citizen Lab analyzed the Chinese messaging app WeChat by Tencent (the same people who own League of Legends, for the curious). According to their work, the number and scope of keywords and keyword combinations that were being censored grew enormously following his death. They write:
Our analysis of WeChat keyword-based censorship shows that after his death messages containing his name in English and in both simplified and traditional Chinese are blocked. His death is also the first time we see image filtering in one-to-one chat, in addition to image filtering in group chats and WeChat moments.
Sina Weibo maintains a ban on searches for Liu Xiaobo’s name in English and Chinese (both simplified and traditional). However, since his passing, his given name (Xiaobo) alone is enough to trigger censorship, showing increased censorship on the platform and a recognition that his passing is a particularly sensitive event.
Sina Weibo is typically described as a hybrid between Facebook and Twitter, a concept which would send most sane people screaming from the room. It’s one of the most popular social media sites in mainland China. Cracking down on what people can say or do in these popular applications is a powerful way to prevent expressions of grief or frustration that could lead to popular uprisings or trigger unrest.
In addition to automatic blocking, multiple Chinese internet companies also use human employees to retroactively search social media posts and remove anything that might have slipped through the automated censorship system. Since WeChat never notifies you that a message sent to you was blocked due to violating censorship rules, the intended recipient never even knows you intended to share the information. The New York Times reports:
“On the day after Mr. Liu’s death, one user posted on his WeChat feed: ‘Did you see what I just sent?’ ‘No, I can’t see it.’ For the last two days, this has been the constant question and answer among friends.”
Chinese wishing to discuss Mr. Liu’s death have found temporary ways around the problem, referring to him as “Brother Liu” or just XXX, but these kinds of tactics are short-term solutions. As the government becomes aware of them, it can ban them as well.
More chillingly, however, is the fact that such bans really need only be temporary. Clamp down on reporting of an event when it happens, prevent the news from being widely shared, wait for something else to happen that grabs people’s attention, and then quietly move on to preventing further discussion on future topics. If Liu becomes a major focus of conversation again, the government can reapply the same tactics to limit the discussion. Since people literally don’t know what they don’t know, it’s an effective way to steer coverage of events away from certain ideas, events, or people and towards “safer” alternatives.
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