Chinese users play cat and mouse with censors amid protests

HONG KONG (AP) — Videos of hundreds of protesters in Shanghai began appearing on WeChat on Saturday evening. Showing chants about removing COVID-19 restrictions and demanding freedom, they would only stand for a few minutes before being censored.

Elliot Wang, 26 in Beijing, was stunned.

“I started constantly updating, recording videos and taking screenshots of what I could before it was censored,” said Wang, who only agreed to be quoted. using his English name, for fear of government reprisals. “Many of my friends were sharing the videos of the protests in Shanghai. I shared them too, but they would be quickly taken down.

That Wang was able to glimpse the extraordinary outpouring of grievances highlights the cat-and-mouse game going on between millions of Chinese internet users and the country’s gargantuan censorship machine.

Chinese authorities maintain a stranglehold on the country’s internet via a complex, multi-layered censorship operation that blocks access to nearly all foreign news and social media, and blocks topics and keywords considered politically sensitive or detrimental to the regime of the Chinese Communist Party. Videos or calls to protest are usually deleted immediately.

But images of protests have started to spread on WeChat, a ubiquitous Chinese social networking platform used by more than a billion people, following a deadly fire in the western city of Urumqi on Friday. Many suspected the lockdown measures were preventing residents from escaping the flames, which the government denies.

According to Han Rongbin, an associate professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

“It takes time for censors to study what’s going on and add it to their portfolio in terms of censorship, so it’s a learning process for the government on how to conduct censorship effectively,” he said. said Han.

In 2020, the COVID-19 death of Li Wenliang, a doctor arrested for spreading rumors following an attempt to alert others to a “SARS-like” virus, sparked widespread outrage and an outpouring of anger against the Chinese censorship system. Users posted reviews for hours before censors deleted the posts.

As censors deleted posts related to the fire, Chinese netizens often used humor and metaphor to spread critical messages.

“Chinese netizens have always been very creative because every idea used successfully once will be discovered by censors the next time,” said Liu Lipeng, a censor turned critic of China’s censorship practices.

Chinese users began posting images of blank sheets of white paper, Liu said, in a silent reminder of the words they weren’t allowed to post.

Others posted sarcastic messages like “Okay of course of course well of course yes yes yes”, or used Chinese homonyms to refer to calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping, such as “shrimp foam”, which sounds like the words for “resign”. as well as “banana peel,” which has the same initials as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But within days, censors moved to contain white paper images. They allegedly used a range of tools, said Chauncey Jung, a political analyst who previously worked for several Beijing-based Chinese internet companies.

Most content censorship is not done by the state, Jung said, but outsourced to content moderation operations on private social media platforms, which use a mix of human and AI. Some censored posts are not deleted, but may be made visible only to the author or removed from search results. In some cases, posts containing sensitive keyphrases may be published after review.

A search on Weibo on Thursday for the term “white paper” revealed mostly posts critical of the protests, with no images of a single blank sheet of paper or people holding white paper during protests.

It is possible to access the global internet from China using technologies such as virtual private networks that hide internet traffic, but these systems are illegal and many Chinese internet users only access the domestic internet. . Wang does not use a VPN.

“I think I can say for all the mainlanders of my generation that we’re really excited,” Wang said. “But we’re also very disappointed because there’s nothing we can do… They keep censoring, deleting and even posting fake accounts to praise the cops.”

But the system works well enough to prevent many users from seeing them. When protests erupted across China over the weekend, Carmen Ou, who lives in Beijing, initially failed to notice.

Or only learned about the protests later, after using a VPN service to access Instagram.

“I tried to watch my stream on WeChat, but there was no mention of any protests,” she said. “Without a VPN and access to Instagram, I might not have found out that such a monumental event had taken place.”

Han, the international affairs professor, said censorship ‘doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective’

“Censorship could work to prevent a large enough size of the population from accessing critical information to mobilize,” he said.

China’s opaque approach to curbing the spread of dissent online also makes it difficult to distinguish government campaigning from ordinary spam.

A search of Twitter using the Chinese words for Shanghai or other Chinese cities reveals protest videos, but also a near-constant stream of new posts showing racy photos of young women. Some scholars have proposed that a state-backed campaign might seek to drown out news of the protests with “unsafe for work” content.

Preliminary analysis by Stanford’s Internet Observatory found plenty of spam, but no “compelling evidence” that it was specifically intended to suppress information or dissent, said Stanford data architect David Thiel.

“I would be skeptical of anyone claiming clear evidence of government attribution,” Thiel said in an email.

Twitter searches for more specific terms related to the protests, such as “Urumqi Middle Road, Shanghai”, has produced mostly posts related to the protests.

Israeli data analytics firm Cyabra and another research group that shared the analysis with the AP said it was difficult to distinguish between a deliberate attempt to drown out protest information sought by the diaspora China and an ordinary commercial spam campaign.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. It hasn’t responded to media inquiries since billionaire Elon Musk took over the platform in late October and cut much of its staff, including many of those tasked with moderating spam and other content. . Musk often tweets about how he enacts or enforces new Twitter content rules, but has not commented on recent protests in China.

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AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan in London and AP Technology Writer Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island contributed to this story.

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