Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
YouTube is automatically deleting comments that contain certain Chinese-language phrases related to criticism of the country’s ruling Communist Party (CCP).
Comments left under videos or in live streams that contain the words “共匪” (“communist bandit”) or “五毛” (“50-cent party”) are automatically deleted in around 15 seconds, though their English language translations and Romanized Pinyin equivalents are not.
The term “共匪” is an insult that dates back to China’s Nationalist government, while “五毛,” (or “wu mao”) is a derogatory slang term for internet users paid to direct online discussion away from criticism of the CCP. The name comes from claims that such commenters are paid 50 Chinese cents per post.
It’s not clear why these phrases are being deleted, but it seems that they’ve been added to comment filters meant to automatically remove spam or offensive text. This is suggested by the fact that the comments are removed quickly (human moderation takes longer) and that they are removed even if the banned phrases are used positively (e.g., “The 五毛 are doing a fantastic job”).
Making the matter more puzzling is that YouTube is currently blocked in China, giving its parent company, Google, even less reason to censor comments critical of the CCP or apply moderation systems in accordance with Chinese censorship laws. We’ve reached out to Google for comment and will update this story when we hear more.
The automatic deletion of these phrases was highlighted on Tuesday by US technologist and former Oculus founder Palmer Luckey on Twitter. But earlier reports of the issue date back to the middle of May when they were spotted by human rights activist Jennifer Zeng. The Verge also found complaints on YouTube’s official help pages, noting that such comments were deleted from October 2019.
#YouTube “automatically” deletes a comment in Chinese, “Gongfei”, which means “communist bandit”, in 15 seconds.
This person tested 3 times, same result. #油管 15秒內自動刪除「共匪」留言，網友連試三次皆如此。
— Jennifer Zeng 曾錚 (@jenniferatntd) May 13, 2020
Google has frequently been criticized for accommodating the wishes of the CCP by censoring content. Most notably, it created a prototype search engine known as Project Dragonfly that complied with Chinese state censorship. The project, which was never deployed, is part of the company’s long-running struggles to enter the Chinese market.
When news of Dragonfly leaked in 2018 in a report from The Intercept, Google was criticized by politicians and its own employees for selling out its principles. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2019, the company said it had “terminated” the project and that it had “no plans to launch Search in China.”