01/23/2019 10:10 EST | Updated 01/23/2019 10:19 EST

WeChat Is A Chinese-Language App Helping To Shape Canadian Elections

WeChat has helped contribute to an increasingly toxic political discourse among members of the Chinese diaspora.

Last week, Karen Wang, a Liberal candidate in the Burnaby South riding in British Columbia, stepped down after it was reported that she appealed to voters by stating she was the only Chinese candidate, contrasting herself to her main opponent, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, who she described as of "Indian descent."

The appeal came on WeChat, a Chinese social media app that is becoming important in Canada.

The Canadian Press
Former Burnaby South Liberal candidate Karen Wang speaks during an interview in Burnaby, B.C., on Jan. 15, 2019.

With close to 1.1 billion monthly active users on the platform, WeChat is the most popular messaging application in China. However, calling it a messaging app would be an understatement. Imagine a place where you combine the features of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Uber, Amazon and Google Maps together. WeChat has features such as mobile payments, ride-sharing, E-commerce shopping and a newsfeed where users can see what their friends are doing.

WeChat's online community was created to provide opportunities for businesses to sell their products, bloggers to get their readers' attention and politicians to spread their messaging. A portion of Chinese immigrants rely on WeChat for daily Chinese-language local news, as well as trending stories in Canada.

This has become a problem because WeChat has helped contribute to an increasingly toxic political discourse among members of the Chinese diaspora. Articles that promote Islamophobia and far-right ideology are published, and read by many, on a regular basis.

These articles have also instigated political protests such as the 'hijab hoax.'

The "Voice of North American Chinese" (VNAC) account, for example, has aimed to spread fake news. Over the past week, the account published articles stating that Canada will become a country full of drugs to bash Singh and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A VNAC article published in early 2018 spread xenophobic propaganda claiming the government has taken in "loads of refugees" while "deporting thousands of Chinese." The article received more than 100,000 unique user viewers, the maximum WeChat shows to general users.

These articles have also instigated political protests such as the "hijab hoax," during which a group of Chinese Canadians rallied to Ottawa to protest against Trudeau.

WeChat also has some unique features that make it more susceptible to being used to spread fake news without consequences. Content on Facebook and Twitter in Canada is predominately in English or French, so it's relatively easy to fact-check by cross referencing claims on Google. But on the Chinese-language WeChat, fact-checking is more challenging because the sources are often translated from English, and so bloggers are able to blame falsehoods on "translation issues."

As such, due to this combination of an insular community rife with the spread of misinformation, it's not a surprise Wang made her plea on the platform.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
Asian Canadians protested in Toronto on Jan. 29, 2018, to demand apologies following the revelation that a girl had lied about an Asian man cutting her hijab.

While WeChat is heavily censored in China, the Canadian government hasn't imposed restrictions on the platform, and something needs to be done.

There are various measures WeChat could take, including having more staff to moderate content and vet reported fake news with stricter standards. It certainly has the capacity to detect potential fake news with its existing network of debunkers, which included more than 300 million users in 2018.

Unfortunately, however, It's unrealistic to expect the China-based tech company to start cracking down on the hate speech and fake news that dominates the platform in Canada, because it faces very little pressure to impose any self-regulatory measures.

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The media bringing Wang's comments to a broad audience is a good sign, but I can attest to the fact that the incident was just a tiny sample of the hate and misinformation that spreads on the platform on a regular basis without any English-language coverage.

With this in mind, for now it's ultimately up to journalists and community activists to make conduct like Wang's public, pay greater attention to the platform and call out the fake news that has been spreading.

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