YouTube has admitted that it has been deleting from its comment section some Chinese phrases critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“We’re always working to resolve issues on YouTube. 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 company spokesperson told The Epoch Times in a May 27 email.
One apparently banned phrase was “gongfei” (共匪), which can be translated as “communist bandit.” It seems to date back to the Chinese civil war era.
Another phrase that has been deleted was “wumao” (五毛), which literally means “fifty cents,” and is commonly used to describe the army of internet trolls the CCP uses to spread its propaganda online. It’s rumored the trolls used to be paid around 50 cents per post.
The Epoch Times tested both phrases repeatedly under different YouTube accounts and different videos, always obtaining the same result—the comments were deleted in roughly 20 seconds.
According to YouTube, the comments weren’t removed because of a policy change or bulk flagging, but because its automated comment moderation system didn’t take the proper context into account. In some contexts, the phrases could have violated YouTube’s policies, it said.
The company also stated that it quickly investigated the issue when made aware of it and is now rolling out fixes, also noting that it has been relying more on the automated moderation during the CCP virus pandemic.
When tested on the morning of May 27, the issue appeared to have already been resolved.
Still, YouTube’s explanation doesn’t seem to quite fit the facts.
On May 13, the issue was noted by Jennifer Zeng, a blogger and creator of YouTube content with a focus on China news and commentary.
When The Epoch Times asked Google, which owns YouTube, about the issue on May 19, the company wouldn’t admit the comment deletion was taking place, despite being provided extensive evidence.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) questioned Google about the comment deletion in a May 26 letter, asking it to “outline Google’s policy that would block criticism of Chinese Communist Party’s internet propaganda division.”
He pointed out that the company is on one hand saying that it “cannot possibly police opioid sales, terrorist coordination or illicit content” and thus needs protections from liability for user content under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but on the other hand, the company has enough resources to “block criticism of a brutal, dictatorial regime.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) followed with his own letter on May 27.
“Selling out American principles to curry favor with communist officials is no way to run an American business,” he said.
Google has repeatedly come under fire for allegedly kowtowing to the CCP.
Since 2018, the company has cooperated with a leading artificial intelligence (AI) research body at Tsinghua University, a prestigious Chinese academic institution that also conducts AI research for the Chinese military.
Google also faced criticism after it was revealed in 2018 that it was secretly developing a censored search app for the Chinese market, as part of a project dubbed “Dragonfly.”
According to insider information leaked to The Intercept, the Google app was designed to link users’ search history with their phone numbers, making it easier for the regime to target dissidents.
Lawmakers, human-rights advocates, and even some Google employees spoke out against the project, which appears to have since been shelved.
Google ran a censored version of its search engine in China from 2006 to 2010, but exited after the company said a cyberattack originating from China had targeted Google email accounts of dozens of Chinese rights activists.
The Chinese regime is one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights, according to watchdogs. In recent decades, the regime has killed hundreds of thousands of prisoners of conscience to sell their organs for transplants, based on extensive research conducted since allegations of the crime first surfaced in 2006.
In 2019, an independent tribunal in London concluded that state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience had taken place for years in China “on a significant scale,” and continues to this day.
The CCP runs the world’s most sophisticated system of internet censorship, employing tens of thousands of people to manually delete content and make negative or positive posts and comments based on the regime’s instructions.
The regime requires foreign companies that operate in China to censor topics it deems “sensitive,” such as democracy, human rights, and the ongoing persecution in China of Falun Gong practitioners, underground Christians, Uyghurs, rights activists, and others. Companies are also forced to share with the regime any of their data stored in China.
Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai has previously said that the company has invested in China for years and plans to continue to do so.
The Trump administration has placed significant emphasis on pushing back against the CCP, particularly in the tech and cyber sector.
“We need to make sure that our companies don’t do deals that strengthen a competitor’s military or tighten the regime’s grip of repression in parts of that country,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in January.
Bowen Xiao, Cathy He, and Nathan Su contributed to this report.
Update: The article has been updated with a response from YouTube and a letter of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).