According to a person familiar with the matter, the original video uploaded by the creator had 5 million views before it was taken down. Considering how many times it was re-uploaded, the video could have easily reached millions of Chinese that night. However, each individual version, as well as sympathetic stories commenting on the videos, were censored almost immediately.
The intensity of censorship going on so late at night in China was amazing, says Eric Liu, a former Internet censor in China who now works with the US edition of China Digital Times. “The rate at which posts are censored within seconds [of publishing], made it really unusual for me. Need to order a lot [censorship] employees to work overtime.
Two screenshots showing leaked local government orders remove content related to the video that also appeared on the Internet. The two orders are worded differently, but both orders asked tech companies to “clear” any video, screenshot, or derivative content “no exceptions.” It’s hard to confirm the authenticity of the screenshots, but Liu, who once worked for China’s censorship machine, said the terminology used suggests the screenshots are likely legitimate.
History repeats itself… with a WeChat twist
This is not the first time during the pandemic that censorship has sparked violent mass protests online. It happened that night when Chinese Whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang died and again when the story of another Chinese doctor Ai Feng receiving applause as “Whistle”was subjected to strict censorship.
What’s different this time around is that the new video is mostly distributed through WeChat channels, a fledgling video-sharing product for which Tencent has struggled to build an audience. Channels allow the user to post one-hour videos, which can then be shared with friends and distributed to the public using WeChat’s algorithms.
The channels were released in January 2020 in response to the explosive popularity of TikTok’s home version of Douyin. In the two years since then, Tencent has used every tool to promote the channels, including offering cash incentives for creators, live streaming of top-rated celebrity concerts, and linking the product to WeChat, an app already used by more than a billion.
However, the popularity of the channels grew slowly. Although it now has almost as many users as Douyin, the average time a user spends daily on channels is 35 minutes, a third of Dawyn’s 107 minutes..
But on the night of April 22, WeChat channels took center stage.
Ironically, it was Tencent’s own decisions that helped the channels become a tool of protest. To attract new users, WeChat has made it easy for users to sign up for a Channels account (while it can take a few days for a traditional WeChat publishing account to be approved). This allowed many people to open public accounts and download hundreds of versions of videos instantly.