Apple’s GIF search won’t find some images from China
Using Apple’s iMessage app to search for “Chinese” GIFs gives you a blank page
Sending GIFs in messages is popular and easy. Plenty of messaging apps now have search functions to grab just the right GIF from anywhere on the web as a witty retort to your friends.
But the app Apple bundles with iMessage appears to be restricting certain searches related to China.
If you search for “China” or “Chinese” using Apple’s own GIF search app inside iMessage, you won’t get any results at all. Similarly, searching for contentious terms related to China, like “Xinjiang” or “Falun Gong,” only results in a blank page.
Bizarrely, there appears to be little logic regarding what works and what doesn’t. You can find images related to “Tiananmen” or “Tibet.” But you can’t find images for “Shenzhen” or “Hubei.”
We tested the #images app inside iMessage on iPhones in Hong Kong with their regions set to the United States and Hong Kong. We also checked with a colleague using an iPhone in the United States who saw identical results.
Most GIF apps like #images search the web or user-generated libraries for GIFs rather than relying on those created by the app maker themselves. But results seen on Apple’s #images app differ to what’s on other iMessage apps. Giphy, the Google app and GIF Keyboard all return results for the search term “Chinese.”
It’s unclear how long this has been happening. The #images app in iMessage was introduced in 2016, but it was limited to a few countries. A list posted to Apple’s site does not include China among the countries where the app is available.
We reached out to Apple with questions about the #images app, but the company declined to comment.
China is notorious for digital censorship. Terms deemed sensitive by the government are often scrubbed from social media and even blocked in personal chats.
Foreign companies inside China are not immune. Apple has removed VPN apps from the App Store in China in the past, in one case issuing a notice that said the app “includes content that is illegal in China.”
Now China is slowly imposing its view outside the country. An outcry by Chinese netizens forced major Western brands like American Airlines to change their drop-down web forms to avoid listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries. And Chinese-owned apps like TikTok have come under fire for alleged censorship.
It’s not clear exactly what’s happening here. Censorship might easily account for the lack of image results for “Falun Gong” or “Xinjiang,” but it doesn’t explain why you can find images for contentious topics like “Tiananmen” or “Tibet.”
The #images app seems more conservative than competitors like Giphy. Apple’s app also fails to find any images for “Israel,” “Palestine,” “sex” and many swear words -- all of which produce results in Giphy.
Apple’s #images also fails to find results for seemingly simple and mundane search terms, like the town of Yellowknife in Canada or the Pokémon Magnemite. Both, again, produce results in Giphy and Google’s iMessage app.
But it seems strange that a term as common as “Chinese” would yield no image results, especially when a simple typo in a search -- “Chinesse” -- produces plenty of images.
Most other nationalities work just fine, from “Armenian” to “British” to “Korean.” But keeping up the pattern of strange results, searching for “Israeli” will give you plenty of GIFs -- but searching for “Israel” leads to a blank page.