WeChat Becomes More Censored By Government In China

Dr Johannes Ullrich, Dean of Research at SANS Institute commented below, regarding the recent added censorship WeChat has undergone in mainland China. It addresses how sophisticated censorship and control is possible at scale, as well as the complexities of such censorship in our globally connected environment.

Dr Johannes Ullrich, Dean of Research at SANS Institute:

“Last week, President Xi of China extended his stay in power, amending the Chinese constitution to allow him to continue in office beyond the customary 10 years. Naturally, this has provoked an increase in negative opinion and dissent online, which in turn has led to the Chinese leadership implementing further measures to censor social media traffic.

“Social media is already heavily monitored and censored in China and WeChat, one of the few approved platforms in China, is a chat service run by Chinese company Tencent. Tencent is known to work closely with the Chinese government. Previously, the Chinese leadership could censor content on WeChat by blocking a specific list of words. Recently, WeChat started to not just filter text, but also filter images by doing OCR (optical character recognition) or by applying machine learning to filter these images if they contain bad words. Machine learning is more likely due to some of the oddities discovered in filtering algorithms. Images are more than likely going to be affected if they are sent to a group chat room instead of to an individual, likely in an effort to optimize the use of computing power whilst affecting messages with the most impact. This is impressive in that WeChat has just short of a billion active users who sent an average of 38 billion messages a day.

“Although WeChat is almost exclusively used by Chinese users, approximately 10% of the 800 million+ users live outside of China. For these users, Chinese filtering and censorship do not apply. This means that users of WeChat in other countries are not affected, even if they are in the same chat room as Chinese users. What this means for other countries is that it demonstrates that rather sophisticated censorship and control is possible at scale. While not currently practiced in the US or Europe, it shows that large social media sites could certainly do it.”

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