How unwitting Chinese internet users are aiding Communist regime’s online censorship

WeChat censorship

The latest detailed insight into online censorship in China has revealed how the Communist regime’s strict rules have created an environment where even compliant companies are over-censoring for fear of falling foul of the rules.

The study has looked in detail at how censorship of images on WeChat, a Chinese instant messenger service, works. It has found that their real-time filtering service is able to learn from each image posted and use that information to instantly block related images.

The work of Citizen Lab

Getting a detailed insight into how online censorship works in Communist China can be really tricky.

Fortunately, Citizen Lab, a research project based at the University of Toronto in Canada is there to help. They have a strong track record of using their knowledge, experience and contacts to delve deeper into the workings of Chinese online controls than just about any other organization.

Their latest report is called (Can’t) Picture This 2: An Analysis of WeChat’s Real-time Image Filtering in Chats.

Citizen Lab’s researchers examined how 220 images were handled by the WeChat censorship apparatus. They found that, unsurprisingly, the most censored images related to government issues and included things like unflattering images of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and cartoon’s mocking China’s farcical justice system.

After that, the most commonly blocked images related to events such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, democratic elections in the USA and Taiwan, and issues such as Huawei.

State media content being censored

Interestingly, they noted that among the images that were blocked were a number that had been posted by the Communist Party’s own state-run media outlets. In particular, Global Times, one of the most nationalist of all China’s English language propaganda outlets, had five images of its own blocked.

State-run news agency Xinhua also had some content censored including coverage of a Communist Party report which attempted to whitewash the countries shocking child vaccine scandal in 2018 and a picture of a fireworks display which contained the Communist Party leaders at an international conference.

It is unclear why this particular fell foul of the censors, but Citizen lab says they are evidence of social media platforms like WeChat over-censoring content rather than risk being found in breach of Communist China’s strict new rules.

How is WeChat censoring images?

One of the co-authors of the report, Jeff Knockel, has suggested that WeChat is using algorithms to learn whenever a censored image is posted.

When an image is sent on the service, the file’s hash (its digital fingerprint) is compared to WeChat’s blacklist. If there is a match, the file will be blocked.

If there is no match, the file is sent but also passed on to two other retroactive screening tools. One scans the image for censored words or phrases while the other checks it for similarities to blacklisted images.

The researchers discovered that WeChat was able to use this data to update its own blacklist of censored content automatically. If an image fails either of these tests, its hash will be automatically added to the blacklist and it will be removed from WeChat.

“Users using the platform are building the [blacklist’s] database by sending images,” Knockel explained before adding that this process was being done without most users knowledge or permission. He described the process as a kind of outsourcing.

Knockel believes this is the first time that it has been proved that a Chinese platform is building its own censorship mechanism rather than employing an army of human censors to remove unwelcome content.

The other interesting discovery made by Citizen Lab was that this censorship process only applied to WeChat users who were located in China. If an account was not registered using a Chinese mobile number, it was not subjected to the same level of censorship as accounts that were.

Tencent has, predictably, refused to comment on the researcher’s findings. They have not bothered to deny them but to do so would be pointless. Citizen Lab has a flawless record in their research findings while Tencent is a well-known online censor that is required to comply with the Communist regimes demands under Chinese law.

What can internet users do?

The best advice for internet users both inside and outside China is to avoid using WeChat at all costs.

All online platforms that are headquartered in Communist China are required by law to comply with the regimes oppressive censorship and surveillance requirements. It is therefore wise for anyone who cares about their online privacy to avoid Chinese sites if at all possible.

If you find yourself in China and wanted to access the internet freely and get around the censorship, the best thing to do is use a VPN. China has tried to block access to VPNs but there are still plenty of good VPNs which work there.

ExpressVPN is our current top recommendation but to find out more about which VPN to use in China, read our guide to the Best VPN for China 2019, which we update every month.

David Spencer

Author: David Spencer

David is VPNCompare's News Editor. Anything going on in the privacy world and he's got his eye on it. He's also interested in unblocking sports allowing him to watch his favourite football team wherever he is in the world.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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