What is WeChat and how could it impact the Australian Federal Election?

Politicians flocked to the app during the 2019 federal election to engage directly with more than 1.2 million Chinese-Australian voters.

But what exactly is WeChat? How can it affect elections and why have there been calls for politicians to completely boycott its use?

The basics

Launched in 2011 and owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, WeChat has evolved from a messaging service to an app that allows users to make payments, get information, network, shop online online, order food and play games with friends. It presents itself as “a lifestyle” for its users.

While Western services like Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, WeChat is used by virtually everyone in the country for business and communication.

Melbourne-based WeChat researcher Fan Yang told SBS News this is what makes the app extremely attractive to the Chinese diaspora.

“Chinese migrant communities prefer to use WeChat because their families are on WeChat and it’s a way to communicate with their families in China,” she said.

“WeChat is also a place where Chinese migrants can consume new stories, socialize with others, make payments and shop online.”

WeChat and elections

WeChat has become an increasingly important campaign tool for Australian politicians to connect with Chinese-speaking communities.

During the last federal election, candidates created official accounts, which are similar to official pages on Facebook allowing public figures or companies to connect with its users, distributed videos and articles adapted to app and held live chat Q&A sessions. groups.

However, during the 2019 federal election campaign, stories of misinformation spread.

The Labor Party was so concerned about fake news on the platform that it wrote to Tencent to raise the issues.

False and misleading messages targeted labor policy on topics such as school safety and asylum seekers.

In one example, a post that falsely claimed that the Labor Party under Bill Shorten would allow all refugees to gain permanent residency was viewed tens of thousands of times.

A WeChat message containing false claims about Bill Shorten's refugee policy.

A WeChat post containing false claims about Bill Shorten. Source: SBS

Reports have also surfaced that supporters of Liberal MP Gladys Liu have used the platform to in the race for the marginal seat of Chisholm.

Experts believe that, like Facebook or YouTube, the main driver of misinformation comes down to advertising revenue.

“News is what everyone wants, and news is the kind where user traffic aggregates and ad revenue aggregates,” Yang said.

“Furthermore, there are low barriers to entry that allow many media entities and individuals to be content producers even if they lack the proper journalistic training so as to attract traffic that can be monetized through advertising opportunities.”

Daria Impiombato, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it was also difficult to identify the extent and source of misinformation.

“WeChat is a hybrid app,” she said.

“He has official accounts that can post to a feed, and they act a bit like public Facebook pages, but a lot of the conversation actually happens in private group chats that are really, really hard to parse. “

Censorship issues

The Chinese-owned app has also been heavily criticized for monitoring and censoring its users.

Tencent had previously said that any content shared between international users was private.

However, Canadian analytics firm Citizen Lab published a report in 2020, which found that users outside the country were also subject to political surveillance, and the content is used to train and develop the system WeChat uses to censor registered users in China.

During an online briefing with Chinese media in February, Scott Morrison said he was “very disappointed” to have been “censored” after losing his official account on the platform, now rebranded as “Australian Chinese New Life”.

A screenshot of Scott Morrison's old WeChat account.

Scott Morrison said he was “very disappointed” to be “censored” after losing his official WeChat account. Source: SBS

The social media platformone of the Prime Minister’s messages to his supporters in December 2020.

WeChat is, in fact, two applications within one system – Weixin for users in China and WeChat for everyone else.

Scott Morrison had obtained an official account, only available on the Weixin version, which offered him several advantages, such as allowing him to send unlimited alerts to subscribers.
Ms Impiombato believes it is unlikely that it was censored, but there is no way to know for sure.

“It belonged to a man from the Chinese province of Fujian, because you must have a Chinese phone number to create an official account on Weixin and (the fact that he never owned the account) was always a risk that the prime minister’s office be aware,” she said.

“It could be that the man simply decided that the risk of running this account for a foreign politician was no longer worth the reward, or it could be that Tencent was instructed to delete Morrison’s account.

“We have no way of knowing and that’s part of the problem with using this platform.”

Tencent previously insisted there was “no evidence of hacking or third-party intrusion” into the Prime Minister’s account and that an ownership dispute was behind the rebranding.

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Tencent did not respond to questions from SBS News regarding censorship on the platform but said in a statement, “WeChat prohibits promotional political content (including election-related paid advertising) on ​​the platform.

“We are also committed to providing the best user experience by minimizing the spread of fake news and misinformation.

However, an analysis of the platform revealed numerous examples of campaign ads posted.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to SBS News’ request for comment.

The development has also led some Coalition members to call for a boycott of the app.

Hong Kong-born Liberal MP Gladys Liu, who campaigned heavily on the platform in the last election and whose Victorian seat in Chisholm includes a high proportion of Chinese Australians, also said she would no longer use WeChat in this year’s elections.

Ms. Liu’s official account appears to be intact as of October 2021.

Federal Election 2022

Ms. Yang, who is monitoring WeChat during this federal election, told SBS News that she has seen a massive influx of election-related content since the federal election was called.

“Content doesn’t necessarily only come from politicians’ accounts, but from other official news or business-oriented accounts,” she said.

She thinks politicians shouldn’t opt ​​out of WeChat.

“There are 1.2 million Chinese migrants in Australia and 46% of them come from mainland China,” she said.

“The strategic use of WeChat to communicate with Chinese migrant voters will allow these politicians to communicate directly with this important part of voters instead of excluding them.”

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Ms Impiombato thinks there are better ways to connect with the Chinese diaspora.

“Creating an official page, and we’ve seen that, is too problematic and carries too many risks,” she said.

“Maybe reaching out to Chinese language media might be a better way to go or finding other ways that don’t involve creating a wasteful account, you know, in someone’s name. ‘other.”

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) told SBS News that it is working with Tencent.

“(We) met with them on several occasions in the lead up to the 2022 Federal Election – to better understand the channel and for Tencent to understand the Australian election environment, and also to have referral pathways available for content that may violate election laws. “said the AEC spokesperson.

“We do not actively monitor WeChat for misinformation, but may review content that comes to our attention through a complaint, media coverage, or investigation.”

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