Utilizing WeChat as a Research Instrument: The Interplay Amongst Censorship Policies, Self-Censorship Behaviors, and Anti-Censorship Tactics on the WeChat Platform

Ningjie Zhu, Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies, University of Bonn

During the past three years of the pandemic, there has been a decline in physical mobility, accompanied by a rise in political apprehension. The circumstances that unfolded in China during the pandemic have increasingly been characterized as an enigmatic entity, as observed by scholars and within popular discourse (Chen et al., 2023), thus spurring a growing need for alternative approaches to the study of China. On the other hand, ICT technologies have also ushered in new opportunities for exploring novel approaches and means to understand the Chinese reality, with social media representing one facet of this endeavor (McDonald, 2016; Wang and Liu, 2021). China offers a promising environment for engaging in online ethnographic research owing to its substantial population of « netizens”. Yet, in this context, several challenges and risks emerge, notably the pervasive internet censorship that complicates the qualitative data collection and analysis on social media, transforming it into a delicate hide-and-seek endeavor between the censors and the general public.

WeChat, as China’s most popular social media application, has evolved significantly over the past decade. Its functions have extended beyond typical instant messaging features, becoming deeply integrated into various aspects of Chinese life. Consequently, its value as a research tool has gained recognition due to its vast reservoir of online data. However, existing research has indicated that authoritarian regimes, motivated by the goal of bolstering autocratic resilience, have exercised control over mobile internet technologies to different extents, encompassing the manipulation of public sentiment and the identification of dissenting individuals (Kalathil, 2001; Rød & Weidmann, 2015). Similar to any other online platform operating within the confines of China, WeChat is obliged to adhere to the regulatory guidelines set forth by Chinese authorities regarding forbidden content, thus it appears to pose certain limitations and challenges when employed as a research tool.

Amidst the pandemic, our study[1] was dedicated to an investigation that sought to discern the extent of China’s Grid system (网格系统)[2] involvement in community-based COVID-19 prevention measures. Our research primarily concentrated on the system’s adept utilization of digital technology to effectively curtail the dissemination of the virus and simultaneously attend to the everyday necessities of residents throughout periods of lockdown. To achieve this, we engaged with 37 individuals residing in mainland China via WeChat to gather insights into COVID-19 prevention at the community level. This group included individuals working in the grid system, volunteering for epidemic control, and residents of various neighborhoods.

By examining their WeChat Moments (朋友圈), WeChat Channels (视频号), and engaging in text, audio, and video conversations, we made notable observations, particularly regarding the utilization of WeChat as a data collection tool, with a particular emphasis on the theme of censorship. We seek to provide a concise discussion of the dynamic interactions between censorship policies, self-censorship practices, and anti-censorship strategies within the WeChat community. This discussion is based on our extensive observations and research findings, highlighting potential implications for researchers when utilizing WeChat as a research tool.

First, there exists divergent user perceptions regarding what constitutes sensitive topics or prohibited discussions. This divergence may be attributed to the absence of a clear and transparent censorship policy on the WeChat platform. WeChat operates under rigorous government oversight in China, mandated to review user-generated content. However, the criteria used by WeChat to detect and suppress potentially harmful content, along with the underlying policy justifications, remain concealed and lack transparency for its users (Kenyon, 2020). The platform has not disclosed the frequency or procedures involved in their content review process, nor have they provided clarity on which specific content is considered in violation of their guidelines. Concerning local government’s COVID-19 prevention policies, some users openly express criticism, while others, due to the ‘invisible censorship rules,’ refrain from sharing their views.

When delving deeper into the underlying reasons for users’ tendency to remain reticent, sometimes external influences, rather than the platform’s internal censorship policies, play a significant role. For example, certain grassroots grid members and volunteers have articulated that their job responsibilities mandate them to refrain from engaging in discussions pertaining to epidemic prevention on any platform. When addressing queries on these subjects, they often opt to share official documents as their response in text messages, consciously avoiding the inclusion of their personal opinions and observations.

Moreover, it is also amplified by the fear of WeChat’s role as a digital platform closely intertwined with individuals’ real-life activities, as well as the potential consequences of having one’s account suspended due to violations of platform content policies. When users broach what they perceive as sensitive topics, they express concerns about the possibility of their accounts being suspended or their ability to communicate being restricted.

Existing research has elucidated the capacity of digital platforms to reconfigure both business and sociability across diverse sectors (Helmon, 2015; Van Dijck, Poell, & Waal, 2018). This trend becomes especially evident when digital platforms undergo infrastructuralization, which is frequently marked by attributes such as their extensive reach, size, and indispensable role across diverse domains (Plantin et al., 2018). WeChat, within the context of China, exemplifies such infrastructuralization (Plantin & De Seta, 2019). The significant growth and evolution of WeChat, exemplified by its expanding portfolio of features (such as online payments and public service provision), along with its extensive monthly active user base, have made it an indispensable part of daily social life. In China, living without a WeChat account has become increasingly challenging. The costs associated with violating platform censorship requirements have escalated accordingly.

Second, despite addressing identical subjects, the degree of self-censorship among individuals differs. Self-censorship refers to the act of censoring oneself, without external pressure or influence. It occurs when individuals preemptively limit their own freedom of expression to avoid punishment, conflict, or social disapproval (Das & Kramer, 2013). This is often motivated by fear of punishment or retribution from the authorities, as well as a desire to avoid causing trouble for oneself or others. Some users, while openly expressing their dissatisfaction with epidemic prevention policies, initially choose to voice their criticisms through WeChat Moments or WeChat Channels. However, upon recognizing the widespread dissemination of their statements and being apprehensive about the possible magnification of their views, they may decide to practice self-censorship. This form of self-censorship can take the form of either deleting previously published comments or retrospectively revising their statements as a risk mitigation measure.

In addition, these disparities also are largely shaped by prior encounters with censorship. For instance, individuals who have personally witnessed WeChat chat groups being closed or have acquaintances with such experiences often abstain from engaging in discussions concerning epidemic prevention policies. In contrast, those who recount their own encounters with stringent epidemic policies and even openly converse about local government mismanagement in epidemic prevention typically report no incidents of chat group closures or account suspensions, or are unaware of similar occurrences among their acquaintances.

Third, the censorship environment has given rise to various forms of anti-censorship practices. One prevalent form involves the replacement of sensitive messages on WeChat with pinyin, homophones, double entendres, or emojis as a means to circumvent censorship. Media reports have highlighted that, in response to stringent social media restrictions, Chinese users have long employed creative linguistic strategies, including the use of homonyms and intentionally misspelled words, to navigate around censorship.[3] For instance, certain sensitive terms such as ‘政府’ (government) may be written as ‘ZF’ (the initial pinyin letters of ‘政府’), ‘人民币’ (Renminbi, the Chinese currency) changed to ‘软妹币’ (a homophonic playful term), and ‘笑死了’ (literally ‘laughed to death’) is altered to ‘笑不活了’ (can’t stop laughing, where ‘不活了’ humorously means ‘not dying’). »[4]

While it is unclear to what extent online language challenges, which compel users to consistently employ inventive strategies such as homonyms and deliberate misspellings, exert a tangible influence on communication, the lack of consistent linguistic strategies can easily lead to distorted perceptions or misunderstandings in our text messaging interactions with WeChat respondents. In many cases, apart from some commonly used short pinyin abbreviations, we often find ourselves unable to comprehend or misinterpreting lengthy pinyin abbreviations and emojis used by WeChat users to replace what they consider sensitive terms. This often necessitates further explanation from them. However, it is common for users to choose alternative detours to elaborate on the subject or simply opt to avoid discussing related topics further. Another scenario involves users substituting English words for potentially censored sensitive terms or using English or regional dialects from China in voice or video chats. They do this because they believe that human or machine scrutiny cannot identify languages other than Mandarin.

Another approach to anti-censorship involves the utilization of technological measures, such as encryption and circumvention tools, to bypass censorship and access prohibited content (Leberknight et al., 2010). We observed that when some WeChat users are inclined to engage in voluntary discussions on topics that could potentially attract sensitive censorship, they frequently propose transitioning the conversation to platforms they believe are free from government scrutiny. In these situations, WeChat occasionally serves as an intermediary for gaining access to alternative social media platforms with fewer censorship restrictions. This enables users to conduct more extensive discussions on sensitive subjects with their counterparts.

Nevertheless, this approach poses a heightened challenge for users, as it necessitates the use of tools like VPNs to access platforms situated outside the Great Firewall. Owing to the official ban on VPN tools, users face significant limitations in their access to such resources. Employing VPNs typically involves substantial economic expenses, including the acquisition of overseas VPN services with foreign currency, as well as encountering technical obstacles. Consequently, this factor somewhat constrains the available pool of potential respondents.

Based on the aforementioned observations, we have identified an interconnected relationship among censorship, self-censorship, and anti-censorship practices. Actions related to censorship can lead to self-censorship as individuals may avoid topics or behaviors that they know are being closely monitored or censored. Conversely, censorship also may trigger anti-censorship efforts from individuals who want to challenge restrictions on their freedom of expression. Then, the demarcation between these three may seem initially blurred. For instance, employing encrypted language to evade censorship may be perceived as both an approach to curtail expression or communication due to fear of consequences (self-censorship) and an endeavor to overcome or bypass censorship measures (anti-censorship). However, through deeper inquiries into users’ motivations, distinctions can be discerned. When we delve further into the aspects that remain indecipherable, individuals with anti-censorship objectives often exhibit a willingness to provide supplementary clarifications, while those leaning more toward self-censorship tend to abstain from such disclosures.

Hence, based on our preliminary observations, first, it is imperative for researchers utilizing WeChat as a research tool to develop a comprehensive understanding of its censorship policies and guidelines. These policies may exhibit temporal and geographical variations, exerting influence over potential responses from respondents and the manner in which they present their content. Familiarity with potentially prohibited content aids in anticipating research challenges and the limitations of accessible information. Further, to ensure the research aligns with ethical principles, this comprehension of content restrictions is crucial for safeguarding the privacy and anonymity of research participants.

Second, we believe that gathering diverse and comprehensive data from WeChat is advantageous for maximizing its utility as a research tool. WeChat, while originally an instant messaging app, has expanded its functionalities over time. This expansion has broadened the scope of data collection techniques available, including but not limited to content analysis of publicly accessible posts, interviews with WeChat users, and surveys. Analyzing self-censorship patterns and anti-censorship strategies among WeChat users ensures that research findings are appropriately contextualized. The identification of changes in language, content, posting frequency, and communication channels has the potential to uncover adaptations in user behavior resulting from censorship. Investigating how users employ techniques such as homonyms, metaphors, or images to convey sensitive messages provides valuable insights into individuals’ strategies for navigating censorship constraints. These, particularly in contexts with stringent censorship regimes, can assist researchers in approaching answers to their research inquiries.

Lastly, considering the cross-referencing of WeChat data with data obtained from other social media platforms or sources is a necessary step. Our observations have illuminated situations in which identical users, responding to differing levels of censorship policies, implemented varying degrees of self-censorship and anti-censorship tactics across multiple platforms. This phenomenon has led to discrepancies in the gathered data. Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that such an approach may influence the composition of respondents, thus potentially impacting the representativeness of the drawn conclusions.

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[1]The study is part of the ‘Infrastructures of Manipulation,’ a sub-project within CASSIS (Center for Advanced Security, Strategic, and Integration Studies), led by Ningjie Zhu, under the broader project ‘Infrastructures of China’s Modernity and Their Global Constitutive Effects.’ The study, titled ‘China’s Algorithmic Regulation in the Public Sector,’ immerses itself in the intricate dynamics of control and bureaucratic efficiency within authoritarian regimes, with a specific emphasis on the integration of digital tools into China’s public sector. The central inquiry of this study revolves around how the Chinese Party-state consolidates coercive measures while simultaneously addressing specific grassroots societal demands within a multifaceted and cohesive digital framework. This exploration extends beyond the mere examination of specific local digital platforms and also encompasses an investigation into the preexisting grassroots governance systems. The ‘Grid System,’ as referenced in the text, serves as an illustrative case within this study.

[2] This system involves the subdivision of urban and rural residential communities into fragmented grids, which serve as the smallest administrative units within China’s geographical and administrative structure. Each designated grid encompasses an approximate area of 10,000 square meters and accommodates a population ranging from 300 to 500 households. Its primary responsibility is to provide public services to the residents within the grid. However, it also functions as an internal monitoring system within the community. See Ren, X. (2020). Pandemic and lockdown: a territorial approach to COVID-19 in China, Italy and the United States. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 61(4-5), 423-434; Mittelstaedt, J. C. (2022). The grid management system in contemporary China: Grass-roots governance in social surveillance and service provision. China Information, 36(1), 3-22.

[3] China Media Report (2022). Don’t You Dare Say “WeChat”. Retrieved from: https://chinamediaproject.org/2022/07/27/dont-you-dare-say-wechat/ [Accessed in: August 10th, 2023].

[4] RFI (2022). « 魔 » « 道 » Continues to Battle: China’s Official Crackdown on Network Evasion Using « Homophones and Variant Characters. » Retrieved from https://www.rfi.fr/cn/中国/20220713-魔-道-继续斗-中国官方整治网络规避检查的-谐音字-变体字 [Accessed on August 10, 2023].

This contribution has been reviewed by Pascale Bugnon et Yali Chen.

Ningjie Zhu. « Utilizing WeChat as a Research Instrument: The Interplay Amongst Censorship Policies, Self-Censorship Behaviors, and Anti-Censorship Tatics on the WeChat Platform ». In Blog Scientifique de l’Institut Confucius, Université de Genève. Lien permanent: https://ic.unige.ch/?p=1560, consulté le 04/13/2024.