WeChat has received major backlash from activists tracking misinformation all over the world. The social media platform is owned by the Chinese company Tencent, which claims not to allow any political advertising or spread of fake news on the platform. However, researchers and recent posts tell a different story.
The social media platform is a major source of news and other information for Chinese communities across the globe. The impact of misinformation on the platform is largely seen among this ethnic community in the US and Australia. In fact, there have been reports that right-wing propagandists actively used WeChat to distort the mid-term elections in the US in 2022. The same was the case during the 2022 election in Australia.
The app is seen as one of the major platforms where Chinese-language misinformation is disseminated in the US. Jinxia Niu is a program manager of CAA’s Chinese digital engagement initiative who expresses how the whole platform is dominated by right-wing disinformation. It is being actively used by the right-wing to push its political agenda. The 2022 federal elections in Australia seemed no different.
WeChat offers its members to form private chat groups consisting of hundreds of members. It has been reported that false claims of political parties and candidates were circulating in many of these private groups. Researchers believe that many of the candidates have proxies in these groups who were spreading wrong information against rival parties or candidates.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that WeChat is one social media platform that seems infected by the plague of disinformation in recent years. Truth be told, WeChat’s acceptable policy in the US bans any kind of sponsored ad, inappropriate content, or misinformation on political issues. But, since the platform lacks moderation in the US, all misinformation or false content goes unchecked. The issue has been brought up many times with the parent company, but the officials fail to respond to any such claims.
The core problem lies in how content is moderated when it is non-English. When misinformation content in either Chinese or Spanish, for that matter, spreads on platforms like Facebook or YouTube, they are less actively moderated. There are moderation teams on platforms like YouTube that include Cantonese and Mandarin experts, but they often fall short. Also, there is a lack of fact-checking websites or trustworthy news sites for the Chinese community abroad.
WeChat has become a hub for serious misinformation content that revolves around political agendas. Important issues such as abortion and community or social justice topics have been discussed with misleading content. There have been false narratives surrounding the democrats and the popularization of the idea that democracy is eroding with the Biden administration.
WeChat has private channels with up to 500 members or more or public groups where any kind of posts spread like wildfire. It becomes hard to track the source of these posts since social media monitoring services do not index them. Hence, it is likely that most of these misleading posts are being digested by the ethnic community, who live in fear of their rights being overpowered. A good example here is the material that spread during the 2022 federal election in Australia. The post alleged the Labor party would be funding school programs to turn students gay and destroy Chinese wealth. While many apps from messaging apps to dating apps have people looking to advertise or persuade a sign up to a free sex app like sex swipes or another aptly named platform, the agenda here appears to be quite different.
China’s WeChat is an opaque platform without any access to the API of the members, and the most you can know about a post is the number of times it has been viewed. The contemporary of WeChat in China is Weixin which is widely used for many functions other than chatting. The capabilities of WeChat in the US are much lesser, but its effect on users through misinformation is huge.
The app has about 889 million monthly active users, with more than 60% of Chinese Americans using the app. In Australia, the app has an estimated 690,000 daily users. WeChat is mostly used by first-generation immigrants who are still comfortable watching and reading news or information in the Chinese language. These groups of Chinese are most vulnerable to disinformation when it involves a compromise of their rights. Many posts in the past have preyed on the fears of first-generation immigrants by spreading misleading content that concerns candidates whose policies may sound like communism.
Researchers have found no involvement of China in disseminating such false information during elections despite WeChat being owned by a Chinese company. The start of WeChat being used to spread false propaganda seems to have started around the 2016 election season in the US when conspiracy theories on sharia law and anti-Hillary memes began. However, the trend carried on and is still ongoing, with the platform being super active during every election season.
Although there are other social media platforms like Facebook, Weibo, or YouTube, WeChat is the most common one among Chinese immigrants. Hence, due to its large Chinese American membership base, the app becomes the center point of gushing false news that can affect Chinese voters.
However, it may surprise you to know that WeChat is not only infected by false political agendas but other kinds of false information too. There have been reports of posts being shared containing wrong health advice and absolutely bizarre earwax cures. Undoubtedly, such misinformation hugely impacts the mindset and thought process of most first-generation Chinese immigrants, who may not even read content in English due to the language barrier.
Many non-profit organizations like the CAA (Chinese for Affirmative Action) are fighting to tackle the spread of disinformation on such platforms. Along with them, there are individual activists or groups who strive to track misinformation and correct them. They are trying to use digital tools through machine learning and Artificial Intelligence that can help capture words or misleading content.
There is a load of misinformation on WeChat that is immeasurable, and the content only seems to increase during election season. Nevertheless, every coin has two sides, so WeChat also presents as a platform through which vital and important information is disseminated to the Chinese-speaking community spread worldwide.