At the beginning of the year, Google Search had the SOS alert enabled to provide credible information about the COVID-19 outbreak. Currently, Google Play seems to have disabled search for “coronavirus” Android apps. However, coronavirus related content is still available on Google Play Books.
When searching for “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” it yields a message that says “no results found.” Other related terms also do not work, such as “tracker” or “map.” But, the use of the term “COVID19” without the dash does yield results with one of them being the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to 9to5Google, there may be a few reasons for this. One suggestion is that it may be a bug or some form of a countermeasure in response to the high traffic. It could be also to stop the spreading of misinformation. Lastly, it might just be a way for Google to manually ensure that credible applications like the CDC are shown first.
Meanwhile, according to The Verge, WeChat has been censoring keywords related to the novel coronavirus since January 1st. To prove this hypothesis, a research group called Citizen Lab had scripted group chat conversations and sent them to three different accounts. Two of the accounts were in Canada while one was in China. The conversations included article headlines and texts. Citizen Lab which is affiliated with the University of Toronto sent the conversations from one of the Canadian accounts to the Chinese one. This was done to observe which of the messages were received. Initially, over 132 keyword combinations were censored in January, that number grew to 516 by the second week of February.
A Chinese live-streaming platform called YY had also been reportedly censoring coronavirus related content. Citizen Lab discovered that around 45 keywords were added to the blacklist on December 31st in 2019: out of those five were removed on February 10th. YY’s blacklist is within the app itself whereas, for WeChat, a remote server is used for censorship.
WeChat’s monthly active user base is about a billion people and access to credible information has been curbed. This is because the censored keywords include factual information on the disease, references to the government’s epidemic policies and the name of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was among the earliest to warn the population about the disease. Li was treating a coronavirus patient when he caught it and died on February 7th. His death was followed by a public outcry against the government and its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Verge claims that the censorship could be based on the Chinese government’s orders. WeChat has alleged close ties with the Chinese government and this was proven when WeChat and Twitter were used arbitrarily to track down people whom the Chinese officials felt were sharing negative information about the coronavirus outbreak.