YouTube blames bug for censoring comments on China's ruling party

The video platform is automatically deleting two Chinese-language phrases.

Anatoliy Sizov via Getty Images

For the past six months, YouTube has been automatically deleting two Chinese phrases that are frequently used to criticize the Communist Party of China (CCP). Google says it's investigating the issue, which The Verge was among the first to report on.

For its part, Google says the censorship is a bug. "This appears to be an error in our enforcement systems and we are investigating. Users can report suspected issues to troubleshoot errors and help us make product improvements," a spokesperson for YouTube told Engadget. The spokesperson didn't say how the error made its way into the platform but did note that it is not the result of a policy change.

One of the phrases YouTube is censoring is "五毛 (wumao),” which roughly translates to "50-cent party," a derogatory term aimed at online censors who the Chinese government pays to direct conversations away from criticism of the ruling party. According to The Verge, what YouTube isn't doing is deleting the English translations of those phrases nor their Romanized equivalents.

YouTube may have added 五毛 and the other banned Chinese phrase, “共匪 (communist bandit)” to its automated content filter system, which scans comments for spam and offensive text. The system deletes comments that include the phrases within 15 seconds, even if someone uses them in a positive context. In recent months, the company has been relying more heavily on those tools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Whatever way the error made its way into YouTube, Google has been slow to address it. A YouTube support page spotted by The Verge suggests the platform has been censoring specific Chinese phrases as far back as October 2019. More recently, human rights activist Jennifer Zeng documented the behavior in May. On Monday, Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey tweeted about the situation as well.

The episode is likely to reignite criticism of the things Google -- and more broadly big tech in general -- has done to accommodate China's ruling party. Last year, several companies, including Apple and Blizzard, came under scrutiny for bowing to pressure from the Chinese government when it came to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.