Misinformation image on WeChat attempted to frighten Americans out of voting for Democrats

Chat groups are spreading "categorically false" claims that the U.S. is mobilizing troops to quell riots

By Jessica Huseman - Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez - Shannon Lin
November 9, 2020 2:55AM (UTC)
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This article originally appeared on ProPublica.

At least two dozen groups on the Chinese-owned social media app WeChat have been circulating misinformation that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is "preparing to mobilize" the National Guard and "dispatch" the military to quell impending riots, apparently in an attempt to frighten Chinese Americans into staying home on Election Day.

The misinformation, which takes the form of a photo of a flyer and is in both English and Chinese, also warns that the government plans to impose a national two-week quarantine and close all businesses. "They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to prevent looters and rioters," it states. The flyer originally appeared on WeChat during the first surge of the pandemic, and it later spread to other social media. It recently resurfaced on WeChat.

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"I'm sure thousands of people have seen that. I'm sure that it's pretty widespread," said Shaw San Liu, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco, which has been tracking the flyer and other misinformation on WeChat. "We're really concerned about making sure we get some good counterinformation, facts out there so that people are not discouraged because this is the last stretch."

Nahaku McFadden, a spokesperson for the National Guard, called the flyer "categorically false," adding that DHS "does not have the authority to mobilize the National Guard," which is under the control of state governors, and that "there is no discussion of a nationwide quarantine."

ProPublica's Electionland project first received a tip about the flyer from a San Francisco resident whose elderly mother received it. "My mother is not proficient in English, but she read the Chinese part and started freaking out," the woman, who gave her first name as Dora, said. "It is clearly to keep people from the polls."

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Although the Trump administration has tried to ban WeChat, a spate of recent misinformation on the app appears aimed at boosting the president's reelection campaign by deterring Chinese Americans from voting Democratic. "Shameful democrats, truly shameful," runs one frequently shared message, which KQED translated from Chinese. "Without our consent, they made everyone permanent mail in ballot voters. Also, some people's political registration has been changed to 'independent' or 'democrat.'"

Another asserts that "90 percent of media is controlled by Democrats, 60 percent of college professors are left wing. That means America's population, culture, wealth, media, and education are in the hands of Democrats. Trump and Republicans are in a very dangerous situation."

Owned by Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings Ltd, WeChat is among the world's largest social media apps, boasting more than 1 billion active monthly users, mostly in China. Chinese Americans, who once used it primarily to communicate with family back home, have increasingly formed chat groups on the app for everything from sharing recipes to organizing rent strikes. During the pandemic and the presidential campaign, dozens of groups have promulgated misinformation without it being flagged or removed.

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As of Saturday night, WeChat had received no recent complaints regarding the flyer about the National Guard, though there may have been some when the image first circulated in late March and early April, a person familiar with WeChat's policies said. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which have started to crack down on false information, WeChat is almost entirely reliant on individual users to report misinformation, the person said. Users agree on signing up not to post "fraudulent, false, misleading or deceptive" information on the platform.

The person also said that, unlike some U.S.-based social media companies, WeChat has no specific relationship with the federal government to track or report misinformation. WeChat's user base in this country is far smaller — "in the low single-digit millions" — than that of Facebook or Twitter. Asian Americans, many of whom reportedly use WeChat, make up 36% of San Francisco's population. DHS officials said they were unaware of any efforts by WeChat or the federal government to partner to address election misinformation.

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The Trump administration wrote a series of rules that would have effectively banned downloads of WeChat and the video-sharing app TikTok in the U.S. this fall. On Sept. 20, the day they were to go into effect, a federal judge stayed the ruling, giving WeChat a reprieve. The app can be downloaded for free with no restrictions in the U.S.

DHS officials said that the FBI handles most investigations of domestic misinformation and election interference. The FBI declined to comment on whether it is investigating the flyer or on any other interactions with WeChat. "The FBI remains in close touch with all of our interagency partners and social media and technology companies to enable a quick exchange of threat information," said Sutton Roach, a spokesperson for the bureau.

Misinformation on WeChat is not a new phenomenon. A 2018 study by the Columbia Journalism Review found that political discourse on WeChat is "asymmetrically polarized" and "especially vulnerable to political misinformation" such as unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories. Most of this misinformation is spread in large chat rooms, like the ones the Chinese Progressive Association has observed in San Francisco.

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After similar reports of misinformation in Australia, WeChat blocked Australian users from seeing the content of problematic accounts flagged by the Australian government. WeChat worked with Austrian regulators to help ensure that information on official accounts - which require verification and payment by account owners - complied with local laws banning the dissemination of misinformation.

Stemming the tide

Without intervention from WeChat, responsibility for pushing back against misinformation has often fallen on younger members of Chinese American families, said Kitty Fong, a San Francisco resident and president of the Rose Pak Democratic Club. One evening in October, the 32-year-old Fong walked into her family kitchen to get some water. Her mother was cooking spare ribs and rice, and over the simmering meat she turned to Fong to ask if she'd heard the rumor on WeChat that riots were coming on the heels of the election, and that families should stock up on food and other goods. The flyer warning about mobilizing the National Guard also encourages people to "stock up on whatever you need to make sure you have a two week supply of everything."

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Carly Liu, a San Francisco resident who lives in the South of Market neighborhood, said she thinks that misinformation on WeChat has swayed her community. The messages echo claims on right-wing websites that presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter are corrupt and being investigated, and that there's a media cover-up.

Biden "should be arrested and prosecuted for racketeering charges," one WeChat message says. "This very serious case is ignored and censored by mainstream media."

Such messages "actually convinced some people to vote for Trump because they weren't sure they can trust Biden," Liu said.

While she is not a U.S. citizen, Liu helped her parents, who are in their 80s, to vote. But Liu has seen misinformation popping up on WeChat that gave her pause about going outside to help them cast their ballot.

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Just Tuesday she saw a photo spreading on WeChat of a local Social Security office with boarded up windows, accompanied by the flyer warning of riots.

"It makes us feel more scared," Liu said in Cantonese. "I do think if there were (people) who were going to vote in-person on Nov. 3, they may definitely be deterred from going out in person."

Shaw San Liu, from the Chinese Progressive Association, said that robberies publicized in Chinese media, racist insults on the rise amid the pandemic and physical attacks have led some in San Francisco's Chinese American community to feel isolated and unsupported by the government and to be more receptive to right-wing extremism.

"So there is this very much deep-seated narrative that has been building in the community around the Chinese community being victimized. The Chinese community being attacked," Liu said. That has fostered anti-homeless, anti-queer, anti-Black sentiment in the community, she added. "This conflation of racial justice and Black Lives Matters with riots as a white right-wing talking point, that is very much being brought into the Chinese right-wing analysis."

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After groups on WeChat first spread the flyer in late March, the National Guard stamped the flyer "FALSE" in a tweet. The hoax resurfaced again in the last few weeks, spurring fears of voter suppression. This past weekend, KQED showed the Guard's tweet to the Chinese Progressive Association, which translated it into Chinese to warn the community.

But Liu said she's worried that the association can't reach everyone who is exposed to the misinformation on WeChat. "How do we make interventions in the WeChat space?" Liu said. "How do we reach out to our community when they're sometimes literally bombarded with messages that are untrue, misleading and confusing, causing fear and division?"

This article is co-published with KQED.

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2020 Election China Chinese Americans Misinformation Propublica Voting Wechat