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YouTube auto-deletes comments with phrases critical of Chinese government [Updated]

"This appears to be an error in our enforcement systems," YouTube tells Ars.

Protesters in Taipei, Taiwan, demonstrate for granting political asylum to Hong Kongers in January 2020.

YouTube's software is automatically deleting comments with two phrases critical of the Chinese Communist Party, the Verge reported on Tuesday morning.

“共匪” means "communist bandit." It was a derogatory term used by Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War that ended in 1949. It continues to be used by Chinese-speaking critics of the Beijing regime, including in Taiwan.

“五毛” means “50-cent party.” It's a derogatory term for people who are paid by the Chinese government to participate in online discussions and promote official Communist Party positions. In the early years of China's censored Internet, such commenters were allegedly paid 50 cents (in China's currency, the yuan) per post.

I've confirmed the behavior of YouTube's commenting algorithm. Around 11:30am, I posted several comments on a YouTube video, some containing one of the two phrases, two with other Chinese phrases, and several with English content. The comments with “共匪” and “五毛” in them disappeared in less than a minute. The others are still up as I write this around noon Eastern time.

YouTube's apparent policy is especially surprising because the search giant has long had an adversarial relationship with the communist regime. YouTube has been officially blocked in China since 2009. Google has refused to comply with China's censorship requirements for search engines, which has locked Google out of the Chinese search market. Plans to re-enter the market with a censored search engine were scuttled last year after protests from Google employees, American elected officials, and human rights advocates.

The Chinese government has been exerting increasing pressure on companies around the world to censor content critical of the Communist regime in Beijing. Last fall, for example, Blizzard banned a professional Hearthstone gamer for expressing support for Hong Kong during a livestream. The National Basketball Association faced reprisals from the Chinese government after Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong's protesters.

We don't know if the Chinese government has been pressuring YouTube to censor phrases critical of the Communist Party, if YouTube adopted the policy for other reasons, or if it's some kind of technical mistake.

While this is the first time we've heard about this policy, it's not actually new. Users have been reporting it on YouTube's support forums since at least last October.

Update: Google responded to our request for comment after publication. The deletion of comments critical of the Chinese government was due to "an error," a YouTube spokesperson told Ars Technica in an email. "This appears to be an error in our enforcement systems and we are investigating," YouTube said. "Users can report suspected issues to troubleshoot errors and help us make product improvements."



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