WeChat wants people to use its video platform. So they did, for digital protests.

According to a person familiar with the matter, the original video uploaded by the creator gained 5 million views before being taken down. With the number of re-uploads, the video could easily reach millions of Chinese people that night. Yet all versions, as well as sympathetic stories that commented on the video, were censored almost immediately.

The intensity of late-night censorship in China is surprising, Eric Liu, a former internet censorship officer in China who now works with the US-based China Digital Times. “The speed of moderating posts, within seconds [of publishing], which makes it seem really uncommon to me. It requires multiple orders [censorship] Employees must work overtime. ”

Two screenshots are showing Leaked orders from local authorities to remove video-related content that has also appeared online. Although worded differently, both orders require tech companies to “clean up” any videos, screenshots or derivative content “without exception.” It’s difficult to confirm the authenticity of the screenshot, but Liu, who worked in China’s censorship apparatus, said the terminology used suggests the screenshot is likely legit.

History repeats itself…with the change of WeChat

This is not the first time during a pandemic that the censorship agency has sparked a heated online outcry. It happened at night when Chinese whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang died again and again when a story about another Chinese doctor Ai Fen — lauded as the “Disease Transmitter” —has been strictly censored.

What’s different this time around is that the new video is largely spread through the WeChat Channel, a young video-sharing product that Tencent has worked hard to build an audience for. Channels allow users to post videos up to an hour long, which can then be shared with friends and distributed to the public through WeChat’s algorithms.

The channel was released in January 2020 in response to the explosive popularity of TikTok’s domestic version of Douyin. In the two years since, Tencent has used every tool to promote the Channel, including offering monetary incentives to creators, live streaming A-list celebrity concerts, and product mixes. products with WeChat, an app already used by more than a billion people.

However, the popularity of the Rising Channel slowed down. Although it now has almost as many users as Douyin, the average time a user spends on the Channel daily is 35 minutes, a third of Douyin’s 107 minutes.

But on the night of April 22, the WeChat Channel took center stage.

Ironically, it is Tencent’s product decisions that make Channels an easy tool for protest. To attract new users, WeChat has made it extremely easy for users to sign up for a Channel account (while it can take a few days to get approved to sign up for a traditional WeChat publishing account). This made it possible for many people to open public accounts and instantly upload hundreds of versions of the video.

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