Media Releases

We (can’t) Chat: “709 Crackdown” Discussion Blocked on Weibo and WeChat

April 13, 2017

Toron­to, ON – Researchers at the Cit­i­zen Lab, based at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, pub­lished a report today that reveals how dis­cus­sions about a nation­wide gov­ern­ment crack­down on rights lawyers and activists in Chi­na are cen­sored on WeChat and Wei­bo, two of the lead­ing social net­works in Chi­na. The crack­down is dubbed “709 Crack­down” as the first enforced dis­ap­pear­ances of tar­get­ed indi­vid­u­als took place on July 9, 2015, and has since affect­ed over 250 Chi­nese rights lawyers, law firm staff, activists and their rel­a­tives. The researchers test­ed words from news arti­cles from pop­u­lar news web­sites and dis­cov­ered 44 key­words relat­ed to the 709 Crack­down were blocked on WeChat. These key­words were also found fil­tered on the search func­tion of Wei­bo. The major­i­ty of these key­words include ref­er­ences to the names of indi­vid­u­als tar­get­ed by the crack­down.

“WeChat blocks cer­tain com­bi­na­tions of key­words relat­ed to sen­si­tive top­ics such as the ‘709 Crack­down.’  When a mes­sage con­tains the words of a black­list­ed key­word com­bi­na­tion, it is silent­ly fil­tered.  Nei­ther the sender nor the intend­ed recip­i­ent receive a noti­fi­ca­tion that the mes­sage was cen­sored.” – Jef­frey Knock­el, Senior Researcher, Cit­i­zen Lab, Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

With 806 mil­lion month­ly active users, WeChat is the dom­i­nant chat appli­ca­tion in Chi­na and fourth largest in the world. Wei­bo, China’s Twit­ter-like ser­vice, has reached 313 mil­lion month­ly active users, almost equal to that of Twit­ter. Both appli­ca­tions thrive on their huge user base in Chi­na and con­cerned cit­i­zens have tak­en to these pop­u­lar plat­forms to advo­cate for indi­vid­u­als affect­ed by the crack­down. But both plat­forms must also fol­low strict con­tent reg­u­la­tions in Chi­na. On WeChat, cen­sor­ship relat­ed to the 709 Crack­down is enabled specif­i­cal­ly on users with accounts reg­is­tered to main­land Chi­na phone num­bers, a con­sis­tent pat­tern Cit­i­zen Lab has found in past research.

“These find­ings high­light the chal­lenges and poten­tial hin­drances faced by indi­vid­u­als, NGOs, and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty in con­duct­ing advo­ca­cy work relat­ed to the ‘709 Crack­down’ as well as many oth­er polit­i­cal­ly-sen­si­tive cas­es in Chi­na. While there is tremen­dous glob­al effort to help Chi­nese rights defend­ers, many of these mes­sages fail to reach domes­tic audi­ences in Chi­na due to infor­ma­tion con­trol prac­tices on Chi­nese social media plat­forms.” – Lotus Ruan, Research Fel­low, Cit­i­zen Lab, Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

In addi­tion to key­word fil­ter­ing, the researchers found evi­dence of image fil­ter­ing relat­ed to the 709 Crack­down on WeChat, the first doc­u­men­ta­tion of its kind on the app. The researchers doc­u­ment­ed image fil­ter­ing on WeChat Moments, a WeChat fea­ture that resem­bles Facebook’s Time­line where users can share text or image updates with their friends. The greater atten­tion to Moments is pos­si­bly due to con­cerns about posts being spread to larg­er audi­ences and lead­ing to mobi­liza­tion. Sim­i­lar to key­word fil­ter­ing, cen­sor­ship of images is only enabled for Chi­na accounts. The fil­ter­ing is also not trans­par­ent.

“Our report serves as a reminder that for a large por­tion of the world, social media act as gate­keep­ers of what they can read, speak, and see. When they oper­ate in a repres­sive envi­ron­ment like Chi­na, social media can end up sur­rep­ti­tious­ly pre­vent­ing impor­tant polit­i­cal top­ics from being dis­cussed.  Our find­ing that WeChat is also sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly cen­sor­ing images as well as text opens up the daunt­ing prospect of mul­ti-media cen­sor­ship and sur­veil­lance on social media.” – Ron Deib­ert, Direc­tor, the Cit­i­zen Lab, Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

The Cit­i­zen Lab, based at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, has exten­sive expe­ri­ence uncov­er­ing Inter­net cen­sor­ship prac­tices through net­work mea­sure­ment and reverse engi­neer­ing tech­niques. Pre­vi­ous work has inves­ti­gat­ed cen­sor­ship on WeChat Pub­lic Accounts, Sina Wei­bo, chat apps, video shar­ing sites and live stream­ing plat­forms used in Chi­na.


For media inquiries, con­tact:

Dena Allen
Pub­lic Affairs & Engage­ment
Munk School of Glob­al Affairs
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tele­phone: 416–946-0123
Mobile: 416–795-3902

Guide on Cit­ing in Media

Title: We (can’t) Chat: “709 Crack­down” Dis­cus­sions Blocked on Wei­bo and WeChat
Pub­lished By: The Cit­i­zen Lab, Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Pub­li­ca­tion Date: April 13, 2017
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