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YouTube deleted comments criticizing Chinese Communist Party

China Censorship (Mike MacKenzie/Flickr)
May 27, 2020

The popular video-sharing platform YouTube has been automatically deleting two common derogatory terms for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), within seconds of them being posted on the site.

Comments on YouTube videos containing the terms 共匪 (Gòngfěi), meaning “communist bandit,” and 五毛党 (wu mao), meaning “50-cent party” – two insults directed at the CCP – are being removed from the platform. YouTube confirmed the removals to The Verge, and said that this was an error attributable to the platform’s reliance on automatic comment filters.

“Upon review by our teams, we have confirmed this was an error in our enforcement systems and we are working to fix it as quickly as possible,” a YouTube spokesperson told The Verge.

A YouTube user shared a video of their comments being filtered in real-time on Tuesday.

The term Gòngfěi dates back to the era of China’s Nationalist government as it fought with and eventually lost control of the country to the Chinese communist movement. The term “wu mao” or “50-cent party” was popularized more recently, during China’s internet rollout, to describe internet users who directed users away from criticism of the CCP. Rumors emerged that those users were being paid 50 Chinese cents for each post made in an effort to stifle criticism of the CCP.

Comments containing the Chinese characters are deleted, but the English translations and the romanized Pinyin forms of the terms are not deleted.

It remains unclear why the terms were being filtered out in the first place.

In a March 16 blog post, YouTube announced it would rely more heavily on automated systems, including comment filters, during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, while its available workforce is limited.

“This means automated systems will start removing some content without human review, so we can continue to act quickly to remove violative content and protect our ecosystem, while we have workplace protections in place,” YouTube stated in its March post.

Automatic removals can occur within 15 seconds of a comment being posted. Human rights activist Jennifer Zeng noted the apparent filtering error in a May 13 tweet.

#YouTube “automatically” deletes a comment in Chinese, “Gongfei”, which means “communist bandit”, in 15 seconds. This person tested 3 times, same result,” Zeng tweeted.

The lack of human review for automatically filtered comments could explain an ongoing pattern of comment removals, however, support queries lodged with YouTube since October show users asking about the apparent exclusion of the derogatory Chinese terms.

The YouTube platform is already blocked by internet censors in China, making the policy of removing anti-CCP terms even more puzzling.

YouTube has now said it is working to correct the automatic filtering error, according to a follow-up report by The Verge.

The video-sharing platform is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc. The company has been criticized in the past for accommodating Chinese censorship. In 2018, the company’s own employees signed a petition protesting the decision to develop a censored version of the search engine, Dragonfly, to meet Chinese censorship requirements.