Misinformation on WeChat

From SI410
Jump to: navigation, search

WeChat is an ethnic media hotspot that delivers media produced by and for a specific ethnic group. For example, Chinese Americans, many of whom are first-generation immigrants, often download the app with the intention of using it to keep in touch with relatives abroad. WeChat is an application developed by Tencent (a Chinese Technology Company) that has a wide variety of usages such as messaging and handling payments.[1] It is the most popular messaging service in China with over 1 billion monthly active users.[1] Parallel to the spread of misinformation targeting older adults on Facebook, there has been a similar phenomenon occurring through WeChat. This trend has been attributed to the curation method of the app, which leads to asymmetric polarization. [2]


Due to China’s Great Firewall, most mainstream social media platforms are unavailable in China without VPN. Because of this, WeChat is one of the main social media platforms in the country. Another reason is that it is one of the few applications that can be used both in China and outside of China. However, WeChat contains many features besides messaging. It is also capable of handling monetary transactions between users, similar to Venmo. In addition, it provides resources for those with language barriers. These two features are some of the functions that have contributed to WeChat's rise in popularity. Consequently, WeChat has been described as a “super app” that has functions that span from many different applications that are used in United States.[3]

WeChat's Growth in Popularity

The rise in popularity of WeChat has changed journalism in China. Due to the tightly controlled media outlets by the Chinese government, news categorized as “self-media” has flourished as users log on to find information and sources that are unfiltered and trustworthy.[4] This type of content is generated from any user and expresses the slogan “be your own media outlet.”[4] The influencers on WeChat can include anywhere from former reporters to industry insiders, where they can be motivated by large financial incentives by selling stories.[4] These incentives usually come in the form of advertising agencies. In addition, because of the app’s multifunctional purposes beyond messaging like handling payments and support for games, users often find the app to be fully encompassing and spend a significant amount of time browsing through it.

Since content posted on WeChat is mainly sourced from the individual user, the platform cannot be effectively regulated to prevent the specific spread of misinformation.[4] This includes altering any algorithms because WeChat does not have support for personalizing content on a user’s feed.

Partisan Outlets

The asymmetrical polarization on the app has been investigated to be attributed to the presence of partisan news outlet accounts. For instance, right-wing outlets produce more articles per month and draw significantly more views than left-wing outlets. Since these are ethnic media outlets, some news are specifically more catered towards the interest of Chinese Americans. Misinformation has become more often spread when popular topics in WeChat haven’t aligned with topics on mainstream English or Chinese speaking media. Some of these topics include affirmative action, undocumented immigration, and Muslims/Islam. A lack of counternarratives and fact-checking has contributed to the spread of misinformation due to no prominent or mainstream reporting on the salient topics circulating on WeChat.[2]

Issue Salience Among Left vs Right Outlets on WeChat[2]


WeChat's relatively algorithm-less design has also been a center of focus as a reason behind the facilitation of misinformation on the app. WeChat also does not have any hashtags or a trending topics section that curates personalized content to users.[5] Users encounter content by subscribing directly to news accounts, a chronologically sorted news feed where content is shared by friends and circulated in invite-only groups. This type of curation causes information flow to be very socially driven, as information is shared by organically created, trusted networks and not suggested to the user. Out of the personally and socially curated content, social curation plays a larger role in information exposure. In a study conducted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, 87% of respondents who are WeChat users read articles posted by friends, 79% read articles from private groups, and 57% actively read from their subscribed news accounts.[2] These private groups can range from tight-knit group chats to a form more like Facebook groups, where large groups are topically driven or members loosely have something in common. The larger groups frequently evolve and split to form narrower and narrower 'echo chambers,' where misinformation has been observed to spread without much reservation. This decentralized format in combination with the attention economy has allowed for clickbait headlines, emotional hysteria, editorializing, and a lack of source checking to run rampant.[2] On top of this, Wechat entirely depends on individual users to report false information, leading to conditions where misinformation has bred.


Unlike social media in the United States, WeChat is heavily regulated by the Chinese government. One of the methods used for censoring content on WeChat is the search of keywords.[6] Any article, post, or message posted on WeChat can be censored through keyword searches.[3] In addition, any individual or group that speaks out against the Chinese government on WeChat can also face consequences.[7]

Another form of censorship on WeChat that the Chinese government has used is stopping the media from exposing misinformation. Surveillance of the media originally started because of the messaging of the Communist Party and President Xi Jinping. Suspicions around the 'propaganda' being put out were raised by the public and were investigated by the media. Despite ongoing investigations, the media has had limited power and access to information under the Chinese government.[8]

The Flow of Misinformation in Chinese Communities

Since many users communicate news through massive group chats, there can be "existing trust among participants" that potentially lead them to "process information with less scrutiny." [9]. The current labels that have been applied in more open spaces on sites like Facebook and Twitter do not effectively travel into these closed spaces. Thus, inaccurate information flows easily and freely, and creates echo chambers of misinformation.

Future Recommendations to All Stakeholders to Mitigate WeChat Misinformation

  1. The platform itself should have consistent misinformation policies across languages and should ensure availability in all languages (not just English). [9]
  2. Researchers need to spend more time understanding effective ways of correcting or debunking misinformation in different information ecosystems. [9]
  3. News outlets/reporters should try to report with less bias. There is a constant narrative that clearly delineates different sides that erode communities' trust. [9]
  4. Information providers should seek trusted community leaders to ensure accurate information is communicated. [9]

Affected Users

The sharing of misinformation has been observed to disproportionately target older Asian Americans. The recent rise of conservatism among first-generation Chinese immigrants has run parallel to this. 35% of Chinese Americans supported Trump in 2016, with this statistic being higher with first-generation immigrants.[10]

Examples of Misinformation

Haissam Massalkhy

In 2018, a new story broke about a Lebanese motorist, Haissam Massalkhy, that struck a Chinese jogger in California in a traffic collision.[11] The story spread on WeChat, but it quickly steered away from the objective truth. One version claimed Massalkhy had intentionally killed the victim to “take advantage of loopholes created by sanctuary laws,” which would prevent him from being deported as his visa expired.[11]

2020 Election

Nearing the 2020 presidential election, a flyer spread around with claims that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was dispatching the National Guard and military to control riots on election day.[12]

Biden Controversy

Information about a mainstream media coverup of Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden was also circulated, with statements that they were allegedly being investigated for racketeering and charges.[12]. A media network found that Steve Bannon has been working with billionaire funder Guo Wengui to circulate these false stories about the Biden family. These attacks were not just a few people; they were coordinated, specialized attacks organized using a Discord chat group. Members of each group tweeted links to alleged sex tapes that showed Hunter Biden using drugs on a visit to Beijing. Soon after, Twitter suspended these accounts linked to Guo and these anonymous followers of his. [13]

Efforts to Combat Misinformation

A flyer created by the Chinese Progressive Association to Debunk Riot Rumors[12]

Some groups such as the Chinese Progressive Association and NoMelonGroup are attempting to debunk some of the false stories spread on WeChat with posts containing official sources and combat sensationalized stories with counter-narratives. However, these efforts remain overshadowed by the misinformation itself and are not viewed nearly as much as the original article. Faced with the asymmetric polarization of the app along with the social curation method of content sharing, these groups feel that their information is at a disadvantage in being spread as widely and quickly as more provocative misinformation.[2][12]

Another group that is continually helping to combat right-wing WeChat disinformation are Liberal Chinese Americans. According to Foreign Policy, in the weeks leading up to 2020 election, many liberal accounts published a "plethora of content" to educate Chinese readers about the U.S. election system and debunk right-wing conspiracy theories. Not only that, they wrote about how a second Trump term could potentially negatively affect Chinese Americans. Wu, a software engineer who is 50 and lives in the Bay Area, is a prominent volunteer editor. He says that many Asian-Americans are also taking an interesting route to convince their conservative counterparts by publishing a series of profiles of Chinese Americans that are both left and right-wing. He believes that it's more "effective to combat rumors by telling stories of real people and what they have to say about politics." [14]

WeChat Fake News Feature

In 2017, WeChat released a new feature that warns users if a news item circulating on its app is potentially fake or is a rumor. However, the people who deem it to be fake are typically Chinese censors or police. The feature is also gamified by giving users certain perks or points by reading more "rumour-debunking" articles. [15]

Ethical Implications

White House Response, Potential Ethical Implications

In response to not only the misinformation, but also concerns about censorship and data collection on the app, the former presidential administration introduced an initiative to ban the app. Those opposed to the ban cited First Amendment rights as a reason why the action would be ethically ambiguous.[16] Users of the app describe the reason they are on it as to stay connected with relatives and friends in China, where multiple Western social media outlets are banned. George Shen, a technology executive in the Boston area, argues that the free existence of WeChat is a threat to the First Amendment itself, as the extent of the false information muffles free speech and discourse.[16] The question of whether the existence of echo chambers dug within WeChat spreading misinformation swings more towards a right of free speech or an abuse of it remains central to the debate.

Wechat Report, Motivation Implications

On November 20, 2020, the Wechat Ecosystem Security Report (2020) released by Tencent showed that in 2016 alone, the wechat public platform had handled more than 200000 rumor articles, punished about 100000 rumor making and rumor spreading accounts, and refuted more than 600000 rumor articles. [17] According to report, there are several types of rumors: 1. Every-day life type, such as "eating instant noodles is eating wax"; 2. Political type, mainly over interpretation of national policies; 3. Healthy and safety type, like "the vaccine for Covid-19 contains mercury". Behind the rumors are three motivations which will be clarified below.

The information window period seeks the sense of control. In the early stage of negative events, the emergence and spread of rumors for public opinion, there are three reasons. One is the spread of rumors or crisis environment, netizens understand the truth of the event "straw". The second is the spread of rumors, from the negative preference of netizens, to meet the "psychological expectations" of some people. The third is in the information window period, some people in order to obtain a sense of control, for In order to control the surrounding environment, and then spread unproven information, in order to obtain an illusion of control. [18]

The information dispute period strengthens the inherent position. In the information dispute period, rumors often rise in the public opinion field, especially some political policy rumors, which easily cause a great wave in the public opinion field. However, in the view of some rumours, the prevalence of relevant rumors is a "good opportunity" to consolidate their inherent position.[19]

Making use of watching-eye effect effect to seek commercial benefits. Under the vicious market competition, rumor has become a means of speculation for some businesses, because its explosive, exaggerated, impact and other characteristics are fully applicable to the eyeball effect, helping enterprises to obtain full exposure and attention. On the one hand, marketing rumors can be used to discredit competitors and spread wildly; on the other hand, they can obtain network traffic with the help of inflammatory and identity information, and guide Internet users into the process of flow realization.[20]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Kharpal, A. (2019, February 4). Everything you need to know about WeChat — China’s billion-user messaging app. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/04/what-is-wechat-china-biggest-messaging-app.html
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 “WeChatting American Politics: Misinformation, Polarization, and Immigrant Chinese Media” (15 May 2018. Retrieved on 9 March 2021.), [1]
  3. 3.0 3.1 "The Logic of a US WeChat Ban" (September 2020. Retrieved on 17 March 2021), [2]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 How WeChat became the primary news source in China. (2018, January 10). Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/how-wechat-became-primary-news-source-china.php
  5. How misinformation spreads on WeChat. (2017, October 30). Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/wechat-misinformation-china.php
  6. "It’s crucial to understand how misinformation flows through diaspora communities" (11 December 2020. Retrieved on 17 March 2021), [3]
  7. "On Tech: WeChat unites and divides in America" (6 October 2020. Retrieved on 17 March 2021), [4]
  8. "Fake News Is Rampant Even Under Tight Chinese Filters; Crackdown on professional media erodes those outlets' role as public watchdogs" (7 December 2016. Retrieved on 17 March 2021), [5]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 "It’s crucial to understand how misinformation flows through diaspora communities." (11 December, 2020). Zhang, Stevie. Retrieved April 1, 2021 from [6]
  10. “2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey” (16 May 2017. Retrieved on 11 March 2021.), [7]
  11. 11.0 11.1 Study: Chinese-American immigrants fall prey to WeChat’s misinformation problem. (2018, April 19). Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/wechat-misinformation.php
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 “Misinformation Image on WeChat Attempts to Frighten Chinese Americans Out of Voting” (2 November 2020. Retrieved on 9 March 2021.), [8]
  13. "Guo Wengui and Steve Bannon Are Flooding the Zone With Hunter Biden Conspiracies". Foreign Policy. (2 November, 2020). Aspinwall, Nick. Retrieved April 1, 2020 from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/11/02/guo-wengui-steve-bannon-hunter-biden-conspiracies-disinformation/
  14. "Liberal Chinese Americans Are Fighting Right-Wing WeChat Disinformation". Foreign Policy. (13 November, 2020). Retrieved March 31, 2021 from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/11/13/liberal-chinese-americans-fighting-right-wing-wechat-disinformation/
  15. "WeChat launches new feature to fight fake news." (2017, June 11). The Indian Express. Lu, Shen. Retrieved April 1, 2021 from https://indianexpress.com/article/technology/social/wechat-launches-new-feature-to-fight-fake-news-4698482/
  16. 16.0 16.1 “Chinese censorship invades the U.S. via WeChat” (7 January 2021. Retrieved on 10 March 2021.), [9]
  17. Wechat Exclusive Report. (22 November, 2020). Totem. https://www.talktototem.com/china-insights/wechat-exclusive-report
  18. Chi Z.. How misinformation spreads on WeChat. (30 October, 2017). Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/wechat-misinformation-china.php
  19. WeChat spreads fake news to Chinese American voters. (3 November, 2020). AsAmNews. https://asamnews.com/2020/11/03/chinese-americans-flooded-with-misinformation-on-wechat/
  20. Xinmei S.. How WeChat and Weibo fight coronavirus fake news. (5 February, 2020). Abucus. https://www.scmp.com/abacus/tech/article/3049007/how-wechat-and-weibo-fight-coronavirus-fake-news