Fake news is not only plaguing Facebook and Twitter, it is also infiltrating Chinese American immigrants’ favorite social platform WeChat. A new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism has analyzed content on WeChat aimed at Chinese speakers in the US. The survey analyzed 25 WeChat official accounts.

The analysis found several worrying trends among WeChat outlets focusing on the Chinese population in the US. Unlike English media and mainstream Chinese media, WeChat publishers tended to favor controversial topics such as unauthorized immigration and race relations instead of topics like jobs, the economy, and healthcare. Researchers also found that news published on WeChat was rife with sensationalism and misinformation.

Image credit: Tow Center for Digital Journalism

“Low barrier to entry on WeChat has generated a profusion of content publishers native to the platform and intense competition for attention, the report states. “The abundance of revenue-driven content published, coupled with partisan forces, makes WeChat especially vulnerable to political misinformation. Emotionally stirring, sensational stories become amplified through the replication and embellishment of a long tail of WeChat outlets, which creates repetition and familiarity.

The research echoed warnings about WeChat publishers from Chinese media and the government about the spread of sensationalism on the platform. In order to ramp up readership, certain WeChat publishers have been resorting to overconfident claims and even down-right conspiracy theories. In 2016, WeChat even launched the “Rumor Filter” official account which helps verify the authenticity of the content.

WeChat accounts focused on Chinese immigrants in the US usually found their audience by offering tips, guides, and events. However, what kept them coming back were article headlines such as these:

“George Soros backed the violent clash in Charlottesville.”

“Illegal immigrant started wildfire in Sonoma County.”

“You could be receiving HIV positive blood in California now!”

While many of these WeChat accounts provide a mix of gossip, information, and news, a few specialize in politics and support opposite political opinions, according to the report. Much like the US media scene, another notable trend in WeChat accounts geared towards Chinese Americans is political polarization.

However, one notable difference is the topics that gain traction. The two top issues were Islam, terrorism, and affirmative action and census data disaggregation. The latter refers to proposed bills in several US states to distinguish different Asian American Pacific Island (AAPI) sub-groups in demographic data collection.

Image credit: Tow Center for Digital Journalism

Interestingly, almost a quarter of content on right-oriented WeChat accounts focused on Islam which reflects the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments on social media in Mainland China. The authors of the study found numerous examples of fake news regarding this topic.

One prominent example was an alleged DUI case in which a Lebanese motorist Haissam Massalkhy fatally struck a Chinese jogger in Walnut, a city west of Los Angeles. It was later found that Massalkhy was undocumented which prompted dozens of WeChat account to accuse him of intentionally hitting the Chinese in order to extend its stay in the US. One WeChat account broke the news with a headline: “Kill a Chinese, get a green card!” No English-language media suggested this claim.

The research also noted that ecosystems such as WeChat that rely on the spread of news through groups and close-knit networks are an ideal environment for misinformation spread and polarization. This is even more amplified when a social group feels overlooked and disempowered, the study concludes.

Masha Borak is a technology reporter based in Beijing. Write to her at masha.borak [at] technode.com. Pitches with the word "disruptive" will be ignored. Read a good book - learn some more adjectives.

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