WeChat users are begging Tencent to give their accounts back after talking about a Beijing protest
On Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, hundreds wrote “confession letters” this week.
I have been suffering from severe mental illness due to the immense pressure of recent pandemic prevention steps. One user wrote that she lost control and sent sensitive statements to a group chat with six others. “I have realised my error deeply. I hope Tencent will give me a chance for a fresh start. I won’t let down the party and the country.” The message was posted with a special hashtag for “Tencent Customer Service.”
Messages like this, which surged on Thursday, vary in substance but share urgent pleas from users who have been banned from the Tencent-owned super app WeChat–begging company representatives to restore their social accounts on a service that has become an almost indispensable part of life in China. Although the hashtags aren’t new in themselves, they were flooded with users late last week after WeChat banned large numbers of users. People affected believe that it was because they had discussed a rare protest in Beijing.
It all started on the afternoon of October 13, two days before the high-profile 20th Communist Party Congress, when a protester hung banners on an overpass in the capital city that called for removing pandemic control measures and instating democratic reforms. “Say no Covid test, yes food. One banner says, “No to lockdown. Yes to freedom.” Another banner reads, “Go on strike, expel the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping.”
The timing of the party congress, as well as the highly sensitive act to mention the name of China’s president at the meeting, has made discussion difficultly censored over Chinese social media.
On Weibo any user content that contains words such as “Beijing,” bridge, and “brave,” is not allowed to be searched. Apple Music’s Chinese version has removed the song “Sitong Bridge”, presumably because it refers to the location where the protest took place.
This censorship extends even to WeChat which is the most popular messaging app in the world with more than 1.2 billion users worldwide, most of whom are Chinese. Soon, users realized that posting a photo of the event in a private group chat could result in their accounts being permanently banned.
Chen, a Beijing resident who asked to be identified only by his last name, says he sent a photo of the protest to a group chat at 1: 11 p.m Beijing time on Thursday, and his account was permanently banned at 5: 35 p.m. According to WeChat’s boilerplate notification, the decision was taken “accordingly to the relevant Internet policies and laws and regulations”.
Chen later learned that another member of the group chat tried to send the picture. His account was also blocked. “We knew it would result in a suspension, but it wasn’t something we expected to be permanent. He says that he thought he would be banned for a few more days.
Although there is no official count of how many accounts were blocked that day, Weibo and other social media platforms have numerous reports about WeChat users losing their accounts after the protest. Some don’t know what they did wrong. Tencent did not respond to MIT Technology Review’s request for comment.
Being banned from WeChat isn’t exactly a trivial matter. Individuals are affected by the ban on WeChat. They are no longer able to use many digital services that are tied to their accounts, such as online subscriptions and health QR codes. It can take days, if it is not weeks, to reestablish digital connections with a new accounts.
The mass suspension has an impact on society in general. This latest example of China’s censorship machine working to silence dissent will only chill these voices further in the future. Protests such as the one that occurred today are rare in China, and most people will never know it happened.
Real-time censorship on WeChat
In China, the government holds social media platforms responsible for closely screening user-generated content. A 2017 regulation from China’s Cyberspace Administration targets online group chats and prohibits both platforms and users from “spreading content forbidden by laws and relevant regulations.” In 2021, popular social media platforms Douban and Weibo were publicly fined millions of yuan for allowing “illegal” content to be seen on their platforms.
WeChat’s terms and conditions has a lengthy section on what content is banned, but it’s only specific when illustrating examples involving scams, spam, rumors, gambling, or pornography. It doesn’t provide any examples of politically sensitive content it censors.
Still, it’s well known that sending politically sensitive content on WeChat, even in private exchanges, can result in account suspension. Similar waves of mass suspension also happened during other online protests, such as when people were criticizing the inept government response to omicron flare-ups in Shanghai in April.
In 2019, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab found that WeChat imposes real-time automatic censorship of chat images through a mix of text recognition, visual recognition, and tools for detecting duplicate files. One result is that once a photo is identified as being restricted, the system can immediately ban all users from sending it. This has sometimes driven users to get creative, using puns, distorted images, or hard-to-understand languages to mask what they want to share.
Images from Sitong Bridge seem to have been subject to real-time censorship. Tina, a 38-year-old Beijing resident, sent a photo of the protest to a small group chat on Thursday, though she suspects the image didn’t even reach the other members. Later, she checked with her boyfriend who is also in that group and confirmed that he could not see any photo of protest. Tina’s WeChat account was banned permanently hours later. Tina requested to be identified by her English name in order to protect her identity.
“The cyber confessional”
Once a WeChat account is permanently banned, there aren’t many ways to appeal the decision. Calling the designated customer service hotline usually just gets you hours of wait time; the in-app appeals process returns a generic response concluding that “the restrictions cannot be removed.”
So over the past few years, users who are desperate to get their accounts back have turned to other social media platforms where Tencent has corporate accounts.
On Weibo, there were two “super topics,” a Weibo community feature that builds on a specific hashtag: “Teng Xun Ke Fu (Tencent customer service)” and “Teng Xun Ren Gong Ke Fu (Tencent human customer service).” Together, the two topics had over 130,000 posts where users asked, begged, or condemned Tencent in hopes it would give their accounts back.
These posts dated back to 2017, the year after Weibo introduced the super topic feature, but more than half were published in 2022. There was one account that had persistently written to Tencent almost every day since July 26.
Use of the super topics spiked before Weibo removed both topics on the morning of October 14, just a day after the protest. MIT Technology Review reviewed and archived some posts before they were taken down. Weibo did not respond to a request for comment. Some users moved to “Tencent” or simply tagged Tencent’s corporate accounts after Weibo removed both super topics.
The flurry of posts on Thursday attracted attention by other Weibo users. They called the missives “cyber confessals” because users often share their thoughts in order to ask Tencent for a second chance. WeChat users are rarely given a detailed explanation for bans.
Some users suspected or knew that their account ban was caused by posting politically sensitive material. “I called customer service, but they didn’t tell me what I had done that violated the rules. “I self-examined and found that I had posted inappropriate photos,” reads one Weibo post.
Others weren’t as clear but were willing to admit their mistakes. One person said, “I don’t believe I sent any harmful information. But if it was, I’m very sorry. I will be careful with my words and actions in future.”
Not all people who used these hashtags were subject to political censorship. Some claim they spammed too many people, or promoted counterfeit products. Others have no idea what happened.
What most of the posts share is a sense of desperation. It can be very devastating to have your primary account blocked on WeChat, which is used in almost every aspect of life. Weibo users describe how being unable to access their WeChat accounts made it difficult to receive messages from family members, potential employers, and colleagues. Some claim they are on the verge of depression.
However, Tencent’s customer service Weibo accounts did not post any robotic responses to these posts asking for more information. Two Weibo users stated to MIT Technology Review that they were not able to post under the hashtag.
Life after WeChat
Being banned from WeChat turns you into a ghost on the ubiquitous platform. Chen says that losing WeChat can make you feel disconnected from the rest of the world. “Even though you can still log into your WeChat account, read the messages others sent you and the group messages, and make digital payments, you can’t interact with them or reply to them.”
WeChat started allowing banned users to export their contacts in 2020, so if they choose to register a new account and start over, they can add their friends back one by one. For most WeChat users, who have been using the app for more than a decade, this means manually adding thousands of contacts and explaining to them why they were banned.
Chen used his old account for 11 years and had over 1,400 contacts. It took him several hours to add back 500 contacts from his back-up account. “When I was adding contacts back I was asked if I was a fraudster and the person called to confirm. Chen states that if I don’t have the number of this person or any other confirmation methods, they might refuse to befriend you. There are also the subscriptions, bookmarked content, public accounts he follows, as well as all other information that is tied to his WeChat profile. All of that information must be migrated.
On Friday, many WeChat users were able to find out who was banned from their WeChat accounts or help their friends spread the news. A 2020 article that offered a helpful checklist on what to do after being banned by WeChat gained at least 70,000 views overnight.
The suspensions had an obvious chilling effect on people as they weighed whether or not to discuss the protest, which was now clear that it could result in their accounts being banned. The government was able obstruct information flow and increase its control by making people’s access to digital services a hostage.
Not everyone is willing to be held hostage. Tina is aware of the Weibo posts asking Tencent for help. However, she doesn’t want to be a hostage. She is aware of the seriousness of political censorship, but she doesn’t believe that posting will help.
She has not yet told anyone about the incident and she plans to live her life without a WeChat profile, at least temporarily. She felt that she was spending too much time on social media apps. Maybe this forced leave could be a detox experience.
” Many people were registering second accounts yesterday. But I said no. I’m willing to give it a shot. She says that if I feel I can live my life as normal without WeChat, then I will not register another account. “I don’t think an individual should be bound so close with [WeChat] together.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.