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Chinese social media platforms, including Tencent’s WeChat, censored keywords related to coronavirus as early as December, potentially limiting the Chinese public’s ability to protect themselves from the virus.

Beijing has strictly controlled access to information throughout the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 3,000 people worldwide.

Research by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, one of the first reports into information control during the outbreak, say the censorship started in the early stages of the crisis. Authorities blocked a wide range of speech — including criticism of the central government — in a bid to control the narrative and manage public sentiment.

Public anger over the outbreak, the biggest crisis Xi Jinping has faced since becoming president, has largely been directed towards local rather than central government officials. But critics allege that Beijing’s response severely hampered the effort to contain the outbreak.

“The broad censorship of the coronavirus we found is significant because blocking general information during a health crisis can limit the public’s ability to be informed and protect themselves,” said Lotus Ruan, a researcher at Citizen Lab.

YY, a Chinese live-streaming platform, began censoring keywords about coronavirus one day after doctors tried to warn the public about a flu-like virus. One of these doctors, Li Wenliang, subsequently died from coronavirus, sparking an outpouring of grief across the country.

WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China with more than 1bn monthly active accounts, censored more than 500 keyword combinations over a six-week period from January 1.

Almost 200 of these keyword combinations were about China’s most senior leaders and their roles in handling the outbreak, with 87 per cent of the keyword searches referring to Mr Xi. Eight of the Xi-related keyword combinations were references to where he was during the outbreak, including whether he had been to Wuhan, the city where the health crisis started. It was China’s second-in-charge Premier Li Keqiang rather than Mr Xi who ventured to the city.

Seven keyword combinations calling for collective action were also censored. Some content borrowed the language of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, with calls to dismiss incompetent officials and set up independent investigations.

The report was released on Tuesday, two days after China introduced broad new rules regulating online content. The new measures instructed platforms to stop promoting a wide range of “negative content”, such as “sensationalising headlines”.

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