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Is WeChat a problem for democracies?

By Isabelle Niu
Canberra, AustraliaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This story is part of an ongoing series on how China is reshaping our world.

Like other social media platforms, WeChat is being used more and more by political parties around the world to appeal to potential voters.

Its reach is considerable. It’s the world’s fifth largest social media platform, and has over one billion monthly users globally. Owned by Chinese tech behemoth Tencent, the multifunctional app started out as a messaging tool and has since evolved into a major publishing platform, used by traditional news sites, individual bloggers and media startups. 

For those drawn to its value as a political tool, it holds a particular appeal, as WeChat is not just essential to people living in China. The Chinese diaspora uses the app to connect with Chinese speakers in the country they live in and to stay on top of issues important to the local Chinese community. For instance, Chinese Americans used WeChat to organize a nationwide protest in 2016.

Politicians from Canada, the US and Australia have all turned to the app to reach Chinese voters in their countries. The best example of this is probably in Australia, where the two major political parties embraced WeChat in the 2019 national election to win over the key demographic of ethnic Chinese voters. Many candidates registered for their own official accounts on WeChat to publish their political messages in Chinese on the platform and some even conducted live Q&As in WeChat groups with hundreds of voters. 

Like Facebook and Twitter, WeChat has its fair share of problems with misinformation and disinformation. But the added language barrier and some built-in unique features of WeChat exacerbates the problem. On top of that, WeChat follows a different set of rules—rules set by the Chinese government and its censors. 

In this latest episode of Because China, we go to Australia to understand how China’s “super app” could affect elections and democratic processes of another country. We break down how misinformation travels within the WeChat’s unique information ecosystem and why the app is a channel for Beijing to extend its censorship beyond China’s borders. 

We also talk to people who are pushing back against the norm, urging lawmakers in Australia and beyond to include WeChat in the ongoing conversation about how to regulate global tech companies, prevent the spread of misinformation, and protect citizens’ privacy online. 

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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