YouTube Censors Criticism of China

Site automatically deletes terms used by regime critics

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May 26, 2020

YouTube is deleting comments that contain two terms Chinese dissidents use to criticize the government, raising concerns about the tech industry's willingness to censor content to gain favor with the communist regime.

Comments on YouTube videos containing the terms 共匪 (Gòngfěi), meaning "communist bandit," and 五毛党 (wǔmáodǎng), meaning "fifty-cent party," are automatically deleted from the site shortly after they are posted. The latter is a derogatory term referring to Chinese internet censors who are allegedly paid 50 cents for every internet post that they erase.

A YouTube spokeswoman acknowledged to the Washington Free Beacon that the website's algorithm has been deleting any comments containing either of the two terms within seconds of their submission. She blamed "an error in our enforcement mechanism" for the deletions, rather than an effort to stymie criticism of the authoritarian government. The deletions have raised eyebrows among Republican lawmakers, one of whom is calling on the Department of Justice to investigate.

Robert Spalding, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and retired Air Force general, said that YouTube's decision to remove the two terms from the comment section is symptomatic of a larger problem: the Chinese government's ability to wield influence in American corporations to squelch dissent.

"The desire of the corporate sectors of U.S. and democratic countries to have access in Chinese market has [resulted in] the slow erosion of their independence," he said. "It's led to more of a co-optation by the Chinese Communist Party, whether it be AI research facilities in Beijing or censorship on their platforms."

YouTube overwhelmingly relies on an automated flagging system to moderate its comment sections, removing millions of comments that contain what it classifies as spam or hate speech each day. The automated system, which flags 99 percent of all deleted messages, is also removing any comments that contain the two politically charged terms, which are often used to criticize the Chinese government.

YouTube appears to have been deleting comments containing the two terms since at least October 2019, when a YouTube user complained that his comments containing the term "wǔmáo" were deleted. The deletions continued for months until Jennifer Zeng, a New York-based human rights activist, first tweeted about the issue on May 13.

"I think it is very unfortunate that YouTube should do such a thing," Zeng told the Free Beacon. "I hope they can stop helping the CCP to limit our freedom."

A YouTube spokeswoman told the Free Beacon that the company is "investigating" the matter but did not respond to additional questions as to why the company let the problem linger for months. YouTube users began complaining about the practice in October.

"This appears to be an error in our enforcement systems and we are investigating," the spokeswoman said. "Users can report suspected issues to troubleshoot errors and help us make product improvements."

The deletion has riled up some China critics in Congress. Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) demanded an answer from Google about the matter and questioned why the deletions have been "happening for months" if they are an error. Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) went further, demanding that the Justice Department intervene in the case.

"This is very disturbing. Why is Google/YouTube censoring Americans on behalf of the CCP? This is WRONG & Big Tech is drunk with power," Cruz tweeted. "The Sherman Act prohibits abusing monopoly power. DOJ needs to stop this NOW."

Google, which owns YouTube, has been repeatedly criticized for its extensive research and business ties with Chinese entities. Google operates an artificial intelligence research center in Shanghai, where it works with Chinese engineers to conduct "basic A.I. research." The tech giant also had a now-abandoned plan to operate a heavily censored variant of its search engine in China, where the regime has blocked access to uncensored versions of Google. The Trump administration pledged to investigate the company's China ties in 2019 after Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel claimed that the company is working with the Chinese government.