During the last week of December, 2019, doctors in Wuhan (such as the late Dr. Li Wenliang), began to notice a troubling unknown pathogen burning through the wards of their hospitals. They took to social media to issue warnings of this new disease thought to be linked to the Wuhan Seafood Market. As the doctors tried to raise the alarm about the rapid spread of the disease, information on the epidemic was being censored on Chinese social media. On December 31, 2019, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued its first public notice on the disease, we found that keywords like “武汉不明肺炎” (Unknown Wuhan Pneumonia) and “武汉海鲜市场” (Wuhan Seafood Market) began to be censored on YY, a Chinese live-streaming platform.
Between January and February 2020, as the outbreak spread, a wide breadth of content related to COVID-19 was censored on WeChat (China’s most popular chat app), including criticism of the Chinese government, speculative and factual information related to the epidemic, and neutral references to Chinese government efforts to handle the outbreak that had been reported on state media.
This report presents results from a series of censorship tests on YY and WeChat that show that Chinese social media began censoring content related to the disease in the early stages of the epidemic and blocked a broad scope of content.