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How China’s State-Sponsored Social Networks Control Misinformation—and Dissent

Misinformation takes on new meaning when the government decides what counts as truth

3 min read
A person holds a phone up as it displays the WeChat logo.
Photo: Alamy

State regulators around the world have responded to the proliferation of online rumors and propaganda on social media sites with a broad variety of actions. Australia, Brazil, and Indonesia have deployed government task forces and investigations, while Belarus, Egypt, Kenya, France, and Cambodia have criminalized specific types of misinformation.

Elsewhere, the conversation is streamlined—and muddied—by more intimate relationships between state governments and social media platforms.

Chinese social media giant WeChat, owned by telecom company Tencent, has been subsidized and controlled by the national government since 2011. Like Facebook, WeChat—which did not respond to a request for comment on this story—has become a primary news source for many of its more than 1 billion active users, and the service is similarly plagued by accusations that it encourages the spread of sensationalist falsehoods.

In June, WeChat launched an in-app feature that users can search to check whether recent news stories have been debunked by WeChat's own fact-checkers or volunteers. It also added a clever “Top Ten Rumors” page that lists fake news articles currently tearing through the messenger service.

Superficially, WeChat’s debunking program appears apolitical. Matthew Brennan, an expert on the Chinese social media landscape, points out that the stories visible under “Top Ten Rumors,” for example, almost exclusively cover consumer education topics such as health and safety, product recalls, and scams. “Some of the rumors are a bit silly,” he said, but overall the feature “provides a useful service” to people interested in the validity of the claims.

But Abacus Newsreporter Xinmei Shen has observed that it would be easy for WeChat to simply delete any posts it didn't want on the rumors list—perhaps to legitimize misinformation shared by the national government. Indeed, the app has a long history of deleting news articles that receive unpleasant feedback. Or, Shen says, the government could simply use the service to tag all forms of political dissent as rumors.

The threat of such manipulation is plausible. For the past three years, China has been named the “world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom,” by the independent watchdog organization Freedom House. This dubious honor was earned in part by China’s expansive Internet censorship program, the Golden Shield Project. The project’s content control subsystem—nicknamed the Great Firewall of China—bars access to foreign sites using a combination of IP blocking, DNS filtering and redirection, and URL and packet filtering.

After the government acquired various social media platforms, China refined its censorship tools to target specific content within each site. The blog Blocked on Weibo keeps a running list of banned terms on Chinese social media, including names of dissidents, uncooperative Chinese political blogs, and coded allusions to revolutionary political moments. In recent years, images of such events, which users had begun to share as a workaround to the text-based content filters, have also been censored.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which studies communications technology, human rights, and global security, released a report in August analyzing the algorithms WeChat uses to filter images for banned content. After trials in which posts from international accounts were sent to Chinese accounts and examined for missing elements, Citizen Lab’s research team concluded that there were two types of algorithms at work: one based in optical character recognition that scans images for forbidden texts, and one that filters images by comparing them visually to a database of blacklisted symbols and photographs.

Creative commentators continue to find ways around bans on specific terms, but their subterfuge has limited utility: The more obscure the language and images used, the less likely it will be seen and interpreted correctly by people outside the poster’s immediate network.

A tiny minority of Chinese netizens use proxy servers, SSH tunnels, and VPNs to access forbidden content despite the Firewall. But as social media becomes the dominant news channel for Chinese citizens, these solutions lose their utility. The only known way to dodge WeChat’s in-app content blocks is to switch to a non-Chinese account. Thanks to Tencent’s forced monopoly on social media, defecting to alternative platforms via VPN is not a viable option for most.

So far, the government’s firewall has proven effective in manipulating the narrative of history. In one troubling study covered by NPR, a case of “collective amnesia” seemed to have left China’s young people unaware of the famous Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989, which were brutally suppressed by the government. Of 100 students surveyed from four Beijing universities, only 15 were able to identify the location of the iconic Tank Man photograph taken in the eponymous square.

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