China isn’t content to merely distance itself from scientist He Jiankui. It also wants to build a digital wall between its citizens and the scientist’s controversial genetically edited babies experiment.
According to researchers at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), He’s experiment was one of the most censored topics on Chinese social media in 2018 — a discovery that could have disturbing implications for the future of science in China.
WeChat is the most used social media platform in China, averaging 500,000 users a day, which makes it a prime target for government censorship.
To track suppressed topics, the HKU researchers created WeChatscope, a computer program that monitors 4,000 public WeChat accounts covering daily news. The program notes when an article is deleted and preserves a copy of it in a public database.
The team scanned approximately 11,000 deleted articles from 2018 for recurring keywords. Then they used what they found to build a list of the 10 topics that were censored the most.
While WeChatscope can provide some insight into China’s censorship of its citizens, the program does have blindspots.
For one, it can only detect articles that were published and then deleted. Many of China’s social media platforms, however, use keyword filters to prevent controversial posts from going live in the first place. Had those articles been included in the analysis, the list might have looked a bit different.
Additionally, the researchers note in a blog post that the government might not have directly removed many of the deleted articles — the authors themselves could have deleted them in response to backlash from employers or to avoid charges of spreading rumors, which can be leveled if an article citing “unofficial sources” for its content receives more than 500 reposts.
Still, the idea that China would make any attempts to prevent its citizens from knowing about He’s experiment — and, presumably, the world’s reaction to it — is disturbing.
While it’s certainly not something the nation should be proud of, by attempting to sweep the experiment under the digital rug, China is denying its citizens the ability to learn from He’s mistakes — and that learning process could be key to ensuring no one makes those same mistakes in the future.
READ MORE: ‘Gene-edited babies’ is one of the most censored topics on Chinese social media [Nature]
More on gene-edited babies: China May Have Helped Fund Gene-Hacked Babies Experiment