Australia has a fake news problem on WeChat and wants Tencent’s help
WeChat has been cleaning up misinformation in China, but not outside of it
While the US is still dealing with the fallout of fake news campaigns in 2016, Australia is in the midst of its own misinformation campaign, and it’s not just on Facebook and Twitter.
Chinese social media platform WeChat has been bustling with misinformation as Australia prepares to elect new members of parliament this month.
On Monday, the Labor Party decided that the problem had escalated enough to send a letter to WeChat owner Tencent asking the company to clean up the fake news on the platform. Content on WeChat has been picking on Labor Party leader Bill Shorten, who is running for prime minister against incumbent Scott Morrison of the Liberal-National Coalition.
The platform may soon face even more scrutiny. Cyber propaganda researchers claim in a new paper that WeChat accounts spreading misinformation about the Australian election might be connected to the Chinese Communist Party, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
WeChat caters to the Chinese diaspora around the world, including Australia’s Chinese-speaking community. About 1.2 million Australians have Chinese ancestry, with more than 500,000 born in China.
While audiences may differ, the topics of fake news in Australia will seem eerily similar to people familiar with past fake news controversies. Many articles are about immigration, taxes and same-sex relationships.
One post, for example, claims that Australia’s annual intake of refugees will rise to 150,000, costing taxpayers AU$10 billion per year, ABC reported. Another says that refugees will be given four-bedroom luxury homes with views, swimming pools and gymnasiums.
Other posts target politicians such as Prime Minister Scott Morrison or projects like Safe Schools, an initiative to make schools more inclusive of LGBT people.
This is not the first time WeChat has been criticized for content related to Australian elections. Similar complaints emerged in 2016. However, politicians are now waking up to the platform’s usefulness as a campaign tool.
“This is probably the first election where both major parties... have directed more resources towards [WeChat] and have increased their activity on it,” said Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
WeChat has a role in shaping opinions in Australia. About 26% of Chinese Australians said that WeChat Moments, a feature similar to Facebook’s News Feed, was one of their primary sources of political news.
Fake news on WeChat is not just a problem in Australia. A report from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism showed 25 WeChat accounts aimed at Chinese users in the US were rife with sensationalism and misinformation.
Much of this content is to drive clicks. The fast rise of publishers using official WeChat accounts has driven intense competition among content creators, the report explains.
WeChat has also had to contend with fake news in its home market. In February, Chinese authorities closed a popular official WeChat account with 13 million followers after “social media queen” Mimeng shared a fake story about a cancer victim.
Unlike Australia and the US, though, WeChat has been working on solving fake news problems in China. The platform has been operating an official “Rumor Filter” account since 2016 that helps verify the authenticity of content. It has even launched a mini program.
Tencent said it reached almost 300 million people with its campaign to debunk fake news last year.
There is one notable difference between the kind of fake news WeChat is fighting in China and what it deals with abroad. Most of the news listed in the WeChat’s Rumor Filter account are related to food scares, nonsensical health advice or government policies that don’t exist.
The more political content has probably already been censored.