Study: Chinese-American immigrants fall prey to WeChat’s misinformation problem

If you Google “Haissam Massalkhy,” you’ll find a handful of unremarkable news stories about a fatal traffic collision where the Lebanese motorist struck a Chinese jogger in Walnut, California. On WeChat, however, it was a different story altogether.

Within Chinese-language narratives on the mobile messaging app, the jogger’s death rallied cries of injustice. The story that spread went something like this: Massalkhy had intentionally killed the Chinese man so that he could go to prison and take advantage of loopholes created by sanctuary laws—instead of being deported as his visa expired. As one headline on the platform decried, “Kill a Chinese, get a green card.”

ICYMI: WeChat reaches audiences conventional media in China cannot

A new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism investigates the many dynamics of WeChat’s information problem, which have an especially large impact on first-generation Chinese immigrants trying to integrate to life in the US. As an increasingly central news ecosystem and online community for Chinese Americans, WeChat offers key clues to how political information and misinformation are constructed for and distributed among this emerging political constituency.

In the cases of misinformation examined in the report, an array of WeChat outlets generate multiple copies of the same false story—often with an agenda attached. And in an information ecosystem whose default is provocation and sensationalism, those focused on debunking misinformation have a hard time competing.

The information challenge of WeChat is as much a story about the platform as one about the communities it serves. For instance, the study finds a striking divergence between how much an issue was given attention on WeChat when it was not reported by English-language media. Top issues on the platform during the period of study, including affirmative action and census data disaggregation, hardly received any coverage in English-speaking media. The invisibility of these issues in mainstream media drives users to WeChat, where the topics become focal points of discussion and mobilization among first-generation Chinese. Another top issue on the platform that emerged was undocumented immigration, especially anger around sanctuary cities. The barrage of WeChat coverage aligned with recent protests by first-generation Chinese against sanctuary laws offering paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Examples like these highlight the need to connect with the immigrant population served by this information ecosystem, understand which issues matter to them, and why distorted narratives may resonate.

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Like other platforms, WeChat is home to a garden variety of political misinformation familiar to the English-speaking public, transplanted from hyperpartisan American news sites and social media. Relative to the liberal outlets on the platform, the conservative sphere appears to be more substantial in its volume, reach, and singular ideology. This asymmetrical polarization means misinformation originating from right-wing, English-speaking media potentially gains wider traction, alongside stories relevant to Chinese Americans that are politicized according to hot-button issues particularly salient among the immigrant community. Stories like the Massalkhy case can take on origins, tropes, and a cast of characters specific to public discourse in China.

ICYMI: How WeChat became the primary news source in China

The content universe of WeChat is already inherently fertile ground for misinformation, because unlike other messaging apps and social media, the platform hosts a vast number of native content publishers vying for attention. While some of them—from individual influencers to traditional media—produce original content, many other WeChat outlets adopt the cheaper and faster model of repackaging and pirating content that already exists. At these outlets, a skeletal team of staff writers (often one person) scours the internet or WeChat itself for the most clickbaity bits of information, and then pieces them together or directly clones stories to share.

While local news is often championed as a bastion of democracy and source of trust in today’s vortex of misinformation, locally oriented news outlets on WeChat contribute heavily to the amplification of misinformation. Many such outlets have emerged in an attempt to seize the thriving niche market as a major immigrant destination, promoting their usefulness by delivering practical information on where to shop and get services, how to prevent crime, and what events are happening locally. At the same time, these profit-driven local outlets have also become hotbeds for misinformation, especially as local policies such as sanctuary laws and marijuana legalization come under intense debate in the communities they target. Lack of credible local news, as in the Massalkhy story, creates a vacuum for misinformation to flourish.

To complicate matters, misinformation on WeChat travels in private networks, hidden from outside view or systematic analysis. The platform is mostly free of algorithmic and computational manipulation. Instead, chat groups, a mode of communication especially central to WeChat, play a pivotal role in the distribution of information. Among a sample of US-based WeChat users surveyed in the study, 79 percent said they read political news from chat groups.

Small groups with intimate ties such as family and close friends were most common, but 71 percent of users also reported belonging to groups larger than 100 people, where members may not know each other outside of WeChat. Local parents group, DIY hobby groups, and high school alumni groups can all become effective nodes in the propagation of political misinformation. As messaging apps like WeChat, Whatsapp, and Kakaotalk increasingly become venues for sharing and discussing news, this organic process of information distribution goes unregulated, falling prey to a set of psychological, social, and cultural drivers of misinformation.

The report offers several ways to combat WeChat’s information problem, including understanding which issues define the attention and rally the emotions of WeChat audiences, and focusing counter-narratives around these areas. The challenge, of course, is constructing these counter-narratives from perspectives that are relevant to immigrant Chinese, and communicating them through accessible channels—whether in mainstream local news or on WeChat itself.  

Nothing about WeChat’s information problem lends itself to obvious or easy solutions. But understanding what the problem entails is a critical first step. At the very least, for journalists, government agencies, and community organizations, WeChat can serve as a venue for accessing and engaging with the individuals and communities often overlooked in mainstream discourse and outreach.  

RELATED: How misinformation spreads on WeChat

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Chi Zhang is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.