Over the last few days, there has been media coverage of malicious and underhanded anti-Labor campaigning on the social media platform WeChat. Some of the recent messages being spread include that Labor plans to levy a 40% estate tax, defamatory claims about Tanya Plibersek and even a doctored Bill Shorten tweet about migration from the Middle East.
The use of WeChat to spread misinformation first gained attention during the 2016 federal election when the Liberals won the seat of Chisholm. The victory was attributed to its WeChat campaign, its key architect, the socially conservative Gladys Liu, now the Liberal candidate for the seat in 2019.
Part of the angst about WeChat has been due to the sense of dominance by the Liberals within the Chinese community with their victories in traditionally held Labor seats such as Banks, Reid and Chisholm, seats with a large proportion of the population from a Chinese cultural background. The recent NSW state election emphasised that edge in multicultural southern Sydney with the Liberals unexpectedly coming close in the seat of Kogarah and building up its margin in Oatley (which covers Hurstville).
There is a lot of confusion about how WeChat actually works which has resulted in some likening the misinformation to foreign interference and a misguided focus on CCP propaganda rather than as domestic politically motivated misinformation. This is because it tends not to be used by those in media and politics. Its wide usage in Chinese communities in Australia is because WeChat, unlike other messaging or social media apps, is not blocked in China, making it easy to contact friends and family there. Furthermore, in China, its functionality is such that you can use WeChat to pay at the shops or even transfer money to others.
The misinformation about Labor has been spread primarily through private or semi-private group chats. The comparison is WhatsApp group chats where people establish group chats and invite large numbers to join. The role of WhatsApp in spreading false information to help elect far right Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has been well documented and there are reports that similar tactics are occurring right now in India. Like on WhatsApp, the lack of public features on WeChat means it is far harder to watch for the spread of misinformation. A good explanation of how misinformation spreads on WeChat was published by the Columbia Journalism Review a few year ago and it is not a problem limited to Australia.
While much of the misinformation has been spread under pseudonyms, a number of individuals have been identified as having links to the Liberal Party, the most notable being former NSW Liberal MLC Helen Sham Ho. Leaked screenshots have also indicate co-ordination in group chats named after the Liberal Party Chinese Council. While SA Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham has publicly denied any links to the Liberal campaign, the inclusion of Liberal in the names of these group chats suggests a blind eye is being turned to their activities by people in the Liberal Party.
Reports are the increased focus by the media has affected the level of activity on WeChat but the impact of this campaign of misinformation may be felt on May 18. It should act as a warning that similar tactics of spreading false information might also be used on other platforms such as WhatsApp in the future unless there is greater scrutiny by both the media and electoral authorities of those platforms.