And Finally

Sidestepping the censors

Netizens make a creative push to get banned material back online


A version of the banned content

It was one of the millions of messages that WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform, routinely blocks with its censorship algorithms. But this time the content stayed alive, thanks to netizen efforts to keep it on view by rewriting it backwards, filling it with typos and emojis, sharing it as a PDF or QR code, and even translating it into fictional languages like Klingon.

The various versions of the article – an interview with Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, in the March edition of the state-run magazine, People – were deleted one after another. But in what has been described as a “performance act” of defiance, China’s internet users invented ever more elaborate ways of sharing it with an ever wider audience.

The interview was first published on March 10, revealing new details about the attempts by hospital bosses to suppress information about the unfolding epidemic.

Pictures of photos that Ai took of her patients’ charts reached a group of eight doctors who shared the information online in late December.

“I am not a whistleblower,” she explained to her interviewer in People. “I am the one who provided the whistle.”

The article was then deleted from WeChat, which is known to monitor blacklisted terms and characters, as well as deploying “optical character recognition” to scan images or screenshots. The restrictions incensed internet users, who started to repost the article in a cat-and-mouse chase with the censors.

To cheat the system, some borrowed ancient Chinese characters to rewrite the material, while others created new versions from coding used in current-day computing.

Other versions proliferated from copies that deployed Mao Zedong’s calligraphy through to an oracle bone script made up of the earliest known Chinese characters.

The same material reappeared in Morse code, and in one particularly creative case someone even inserted the interview into the iconic crawl of text in the opening scene of Star Wars.

China’s netizens are accustomed to finding means to sidestep the censors. But regulators have tried to tighten their controls: on March 1 new regulations governing internet content took effect, which imply more oversight for material deemed “harmful” to the state.

Research from Toronto-based group Citizen Lab suggested that WeChat censored 132 keyword combinations between January 1 and 31, including “Unknown Wuhan pneumonia” and “SARS outbreak in Wuhan”. A further 384 keywords were blocked in searches over the two weeks that followed, as the virus began to kill hundreds of people.

It can be unclear in situations like these whether companies are being ordered to restrict access to information online or whether they have chosen to do so themselves in a bid to pre-empt complaints from the authorities.

In this case the blocking clearly backfired, however. “By constantly tracking and taking down this story, WeChat has only stirred up more anger,” noted Allen Zhang – the man generally credited with inventing the platform – on his personal weibo account.

He also wondered why there were similar posts still showing on Sina Weibo (WeChat’s Chinese Twitter-like rival). Why had WeChat deleted material like this, he asked.

Anger over the government’s response to the coronavirus has surfaced across other parts of social media too. Fang Fang, a well-known writer based in Wuhan, has been writing a diary about life under the lockdown and her personal reflections on the crisis. She has also been forced to search for new platforms to publish her work, with censors following her around the internet and removing her posts. But millions have still managed to read and share her material, as well as praise her courage for posting it (for more on Fang Fang, see this week’s “Ask Mei”).

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