China will begin a month-long censorship effort to crack down on content shared through the popular messaging service WeChat, as discussions of sensitive topics online continue to fuel criticism of the government.
In addition to its text-messaging capabilities, the application, owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd. (HKG:2988), has also quickly become a forum to share and publish news and other updates. WeChat has gained a significant following – with nearly 300 million users -- by utilizing smaller groups and message board-style news streams to keep subscribers up to date in a media climate that is often heavily censored by China’s central authorities. The smaller scale of how content is shared has for the most part kept WeChat under the radar from censorship.
Now, censors are catching up. “Some people are using this platform to disseminate negative or illegal harmful information to the public, seriously damaging the internet system and hurting public interest, causing dissatisfaction among internet users,” an unnamed official with the government’s new censorship effort told state-run Xinhua News Agency.
The announcement is not surprising, considering the government’s habitual, often arbitrary censorship practices. However, the crackdown on the dissemination of information is likely related to the particularly sensitive political environment the country is facing.
June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which culminated in what is often referred to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Chinese troops violently regained control of the square after several weeks of student protests and occupation. Any mention of the event remains blocked on local search engines as well as China’s Twitter, Weibo. Posts using related words or known code words have also been quickly scrubbed from the Chinese Internet in the past.
In addition to that, China’s growing domestic terrorism threat has made the central government hyper-aware of public sentiment over what appears to be a spate of terrorist attacks by Muslim separatists. As a result of the attacks, censors have gone into overdrive, blocking most news sources -- including those that are state-owned -- in an attempt to quell fears and prevent misinformation. Operating under the premise of cracking down on “rumor-mongering," Chinese authorities tighten up their vise on the flow of information, particularly relating to violence in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.
This, however, is not the first time WeChat has been targeted by censors. In March, several users known for political posts were abruptly deleted, while other popular news accounts, like Truth Channel and Xu Danei’s Newsletter, where also scrubbed from the app.