How China's biggest social network fights fake news
In China, WeChat has become a primary news source for Chinese internet users, just as Facebook in the West. And just like Facebook, fake news can spread rapidly on China’s biggest social network.
One of the ways WeChat deals with rumors? They post the top ten rumors every month on an official account -- to debunk them.
So what rumors spread on WeChat this month? The top one claims that the government ordered that nobody is allowed to post “anything harmful to the Communist Party, the country and society” on WeChat, including any “political sensitive” topics. The official rumor-debunker says that’s not true!
(But, uh, you’re also not allowed to spread “content forbidden by the country’s regulation” in group chats, and China is notoriously quick to censor social media, so… I guess it’s also not fake news? But hey, we’re not professional rumor debunkers or anything.)
Another top rumor? That an article told people to stop using microwave ovens, because microwaved food gives people cancer (not true). Or that you can scan Chinese currency in the app QQ to see if they’re counterfeit (you can’t).
The debunking feature is apparently quite popular: The Rumor Filter account also operates a mini program, “WeChat rumor debunking assistant”, which WeChat claims is used by 300,000 people every day.
Here’s how the mini program works: The front page shows a feed of articles that have been debunked recently, with a search box at the top where you can search for terms and see if there are any debunked articles related to it.
The second section (“Related to Me”) compiles all the fake news articles that you have either read or shared. The last section shows the number of articles debunked and who the fact checkers are.
WeChat says that it already has more than 800 third-party fact checkers, including 289 institutions in the China Food and Drug Administration system, 5 state-level media and 32 local “cyber affair” offices. Other organizations can also apply to join the fact checkers, provided that they send relevant qualification documents to Tencent and already have a verified public WeChat account.
The mini program will also send you a notification on WeChat if an article you’ve read has been debunked. It claims to have 19.7 million users as of the end of 2017, and that it has debunked more than a million articles so far -- and punished around 180,000 public accounts.
The WeChat mini program was launched half a year after Facebook came under fire for spreading fake news during the 2016 presidential election, when debates about misinformation on social media were heating up. In December 2016, Facebook started using third-party fact-checkers to review stories flagged by users or its algorithm. Those that are rated as false will supposedly appear less on people’s news feeds, and people who try to share them will be told that the link is “disputed”.
But that’s apparently having less impact than intended, as The Guardian reported last year. Among many reasons, the “disputed” tags usually came after a story has gone viral, and people are more likely to believe that any stories without the “disputed” tag are true, when it’s virtually impossible for fact checkers to review every article ever published instantly.
As for Twitter, well, CEO Jack Dorsey said in August that they haven’t figured out what to do about fake news, which should come as no surprise to anyone who actually uses Twitter.
On the other hand, other than Tencent’s own word, we really have very little idea how effective WeChat’s fake-news-busting measures are. There hasn’t been a study as comprehensive as this one on Facebook, for instance. And when the feature launched on WeChat, there were questions raised about how Chinese authorities could use it to clamp down on articles expressing political dissent -- by painting them as rumors.
Tencent has not responded to our request for more information. (China is in the middle of a week-long national holiday.)
Based on my experience of using it, most debunked articles appeared in the mini-program are food and health-related. Occasionally, I’ll see one about a government policy that doesn’t exist.
Frankly, I’m not sure how I’d ever see them either: Instead of arguing that a story isn’t true, if there’s a story that China’s censors don’t want you to see, they’ll just flat-out remove it.