News

The WeChat factor

As Canada tries to thwart election meddling, experts are warning about China’s wildly popular social media app
February 1, 2019, 6:32pm
WeChat is a social media and messaging app with one billion Chinese-speaking users around the world.

This week, Canada introduced new measures to protect its elections from foreign interference, striking a task force to handle “covert, clandestine or criminal” attempts to meddle in the democratic process, as well as a campaign to educate the public about fake news.

"Increasingly the interference is higher-tech… Social media have been used to falsely slander elected officials, trolls and bots are dispatched to stoke anxiety, even hysteria around sensitive issues. Fake news masquerades as legitimate information," Ralph Goodale, minister of public safety, told reporters on Wednesday.

Efforts include monitoring foreign social media activity to identify where Canada might be vulnerable and putting together regular reports.

These conversations have revolved largely around Facebook and Twitter, the American social media giants that were hauled in to testify before U.S. Congress last year, and which have faced mounting scrutiny for allowing extensive meddling from Russia in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Facebook announced this week that it will expand initiatives, already in place in the U.S. — to verify political advertisers and fact check news, with a focus on photos and videos — globally. In the fall, Twitter released 10 million tweets and 4.600 accounts that it found to be linked to foreign interference in the U.S. election, and says it has been scrubbing millions of fake accounts ahead of the midterms that were violating its policies around misinformation and propaganda.

But WeChat, the social media and messaging app with one billion Chinese-speaking users around the world and which is notorious for its fake news problem, is missing from the conversation. The app, which experts estimate has about a million users in Canada, also regularly censors politically sensitive content at the direction of the Chinese government.

WeChat didn’t provide an official number of Canadian users since it doesn’t track its users by geographic region and declined to answer VICE News’ questions about its role as a distributor of news, as well as if Canadian chat groups are subject to censorship from the Chinese government.

In an email, a spokesperson said the app does not retain user chat records, use any chat content for large data analysis or “use the technological model of storing and analyzing user chat content.”

The app most recently made the news in Canada when former Liberal candidate Karen Wang in Burnaby used it to reach Chinese-Canadian voters, urging them to vote for her, the only Chinese-Canadian candidate in the race, over NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who she pointed out was “of Indian descent.” Wang was forced to resign amid backlash to her comments. In the fall, police in British Columbia received complaints that a group called the Canada Wenzhou Friendship Society was using WeChat to offer voters a $20 “transportation fee” if they went to the polls and encouraged them to vote for specific candidates. The RCMP later announced, however, that no one had come forward as a “victim.”

“It’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, eBay, all rolled into one."

Some observers are concerned that WeChat users are vulnerable to manipulation by the Chinese government, since the app operates under Chinese censorship rules and frequently blocks certain types of content.

“It’s hugely popular,” said Joanna Chiu, deputy bureau chief of StarMetro Vancouver, which broke the story about Karen Wang. Chiu added that she’s seen “dozens and dozens” of private Chinese-Canadian chat groups, made up of up to 500 members. Chiu describes WeChat as mostly a mainland China phenomenon, with not as many users in Hong Kong or other countries with a Chinese diaspora, like Taiwan.

“It’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, eBay, all rolled into one, and it’s not unusual to spend hours on it.” said Chiu.

It’s also one of the main ways many immigrants from mainland China get their news. WeChat has become the place where many Chinese-language media outlets, including mainstream newspapers like Sing Tao Daily, owned by the Toronto Star, promote their stories with great success. But it can’t always be done openly.

Last month, for example, StarMetro Vancouver reported that WeChat had been blocking stories about Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou during her bail hearing, but unblocked them when she was released on bail, based on directives from the Chinese government. Outlets like Sing Tao have had to find ways around this.

“There is an official account, but that often gets censored — like, if they cover Meng Wanzhou’s trial in Vancouver, that stuff won’t be allowed to be posted on their official, public-facing account that anyone can search,” explained Chiu. “But they have social media people who go to these groups, sometimes hundreds of these groups, and post the link and say ‘We’re covering this, we have a livestream, go on our website.’”

Sing Tao didn’t respond to VICE’s request for comment.

Other kinds of content, meanwhile, are allowed to go viral on the app, like a meme about Chinese forces on their way to arrest Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat and one of two people detained in China in retaliation to Meng’s arrest.

“Instead of sympathy for this Canadian who was detained, it’s stoking nationalism and saying this guy was a threat,” said Chiu. “The way that censorship works is that independent news on sensitive issues won’t emerge on WeChat very easily or it would be censored or it would have to be carefully shared in these groups.”

WeChat users in Canada who don’t speak English are particularly vulnerable to being misled because they may not realize the extent to which the news they consume is being filtered, said Chiu, adding that they also wouldn’t be aware, for example, that a $20 transportation subsidy to go to the polls is against Canadian law and could be considered vote buying.

“If that’s where they also get news about the Canadian election and engage with Chinese candidates like Karen Wang, it brings up questions,” said Chiu. “They’re new Canadians, they can vote, but the information they’re getting is censored according to the rules of the Chinese state. So in a way it’s indirect influence by the Chinese government in our election, and it’s an issue people should be a lot more aware of.”

WeChat has already been blamed for swaying an election outcome in Melbourne, Australia — a volunteer-run campaign to spread misinformation about the Labor party hurt its chances in the election — and security experts are now raising the alarm about how it could influence the upcoming Australian federal election.

“The censorship machine mostly cares about political stability in China, issues inside of China, so I don't know how much they care about elections in other countries,” said Mia Li, a former Beijing-based reporter, who wrote about WeChat for the Columbia Journalism Review last year.

But while there is credible, independent reporting on WeChat that flies under the censorship radar, it is an environment where fake news thrives, she said.

WeChat’s misinformation problem is well-known. The app’s parent company Tencent Holdings said in a report last week that they had partnered with 744 third-party organizations, including police and government agencies, to debunk rumours last year and reached almost 300 million users. In 2016, WeChat also introduced a Rumour Filter account designed to debunk rumours, which many criticized as being ineffective since what’s considered a rumour is ultimately up to Beijing. Rogue fact checkers alarmed by the spread of political misinformation on the app have also been toiling away to tackle the problem.

“The quality of information you get [on WeChat] — it tends to be really poor,” said Li. “We all know you get fake news on Facebook. But this is a hundred times worse because if you’re an English-language reader, you can at least go to the Times, go to the Post, you can get credible information.”

Many Chinese immigrants from the mainland have little experience with democracy or with fair and balanced reporting, explained Li.

"Governments should take notice, but I would still focus on the more popular social media platforms in Canada (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) in the current election cycle."

“You read all this news on WeChat, it’s a very weird style if you’re used to reading real news, it’s very striking,” she continued. “It’s never just straight up reporting. It’s always reporting with opinion. But that doesn’t strike Chinese language readers as weird because that’s what state propaganda is.”

But while WeChat is vulnerable to the same kinds of misinformation as Facebook and Twitter, it’s still the latter two that should be more worrying to Canadians, said Jevin West, an assistant professor at the Information School at the University of Washington.

“[WeChat’s] usage is still relatively low in the U.S. and Canada compared to other social media platforms. It is growing though. Because of its dominance as a social media platform in China, it is one of the most popular in the world,” said West in an email. “That will continue to spread outside China. So, yes, governments should take notice, but I would still focus on the more popular social media platforms in Canada (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) in the current election cycle.”

Asked about WeChat, the Privy Council’s Office didn’t address the app directly, but said the government has a “strong plan in place to safeguard our democratic institutions and processes from interference threats as we approach the 2019 General Election.”

Cover image: The Chiness messaging application WeChat is seen on an iPhone on July 27, 2018. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)