WANNING SUN AND HAIQING YU. WeChat, the Federal Election, and the Danger of Insinuative Journalism

A story appeared recently in The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) with an eye-catching title: ‘Warning WeChat could spread Chinese propaganda during federal election’. By linking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda with a forthcoming Australian election, the story draws heavily on views from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and represents a new and dangerous development in the China influence narrative. The story recites a now-familiar litany of concerns, including the lack of regulation of WeChat, Huawei, China’s desire for influence through the Chinese diaspora, China’s human rights record, and the issue of foreign donations—all of which are, to some extent, valid. Yet, despite its best efforts to breathe new life into these matters, the article still amounts to little more than a non-story at its best and fear-mongering at its worst.

We see a number of problems with the story. First, a lack of tangible evidence. To suggest that Beijing may be seeking to influence the outcome of Australian elections implies that Beijing wants to see one particular party win, as was apparently the case with Trump and Facebook. However, as Greg Austin is quoted as saying in the story, ‘It [the CCP] doesn’t seem to have any particular favourite between the Labor Party and the Coalition’. Similarly, Richard McGregor says, ‘It’s not clear to me that they have a hard preference, in which case any notions of interference are pointless to begin with’. So, why this new attempt to whip up fear about the spread of Chinese propaganda in the lead-up to the Federal election?

Nothing presented in the story resembles what hard-core investigative journalists would call ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’. The logic of the story—as has sadly been the case with too many stories we have read about China’s influence in the past year or so—is along the lines of ‘Never mind that we haven’t yet seen the fire; let’s create some smoke anyway’. It also presents itself as yet one more example of an emerging form of journalism that has often been associated with the reporting of China’s influence, which could best be described as ‘insinuative journalism’ or ‘journalism sans investigation’.

Second, the problematic framing of the story. The story is about what some security experts think about the possibility of Beijing’s intention to interfere with the Australian elections, not about presenting evidence of actual interference. To be fair, the story does attempt to balance these security experts’ concerns with the dissenting views of other experts. But one has to wonder what the motivations are for conjuring up a new concern about the possibility of a causal link between CCP propaganda, WeChat and the forthcoming federal election, if there is—at least not yet—no evidence that warrants such a concern in the first place? Moreover, even if Beijing were seeking to use WeChat to influence Chinese-Australian voters to favour one side of politics or the other, it is difficult to see how this would be connected with national security. There is no spelling out of the worst-case scenario, nor of the precise shape or form of any security risk that might eventuate.

Third, the conflation of the CCP with the Chinese diaspora. The article says that ‘cybersecurity experts fear WeChat could be used to encourage the Chinese diaspora to favour one party over another’. Notice that, with a sleight of hand, the Chinese diaspora has now been lumped together with the CCP. This discursive practice has been a standard mistake, ignorantly or deliberately made by some journalists. However, it would be wrong—and therefore irresponsible to Chinese-Australian citizens—to imply that Chinese-Australian individuals or groups using WeChat to participate in Australian politics in an effort to influence the outcome of Australian elections and the CCP seeking to interfere in Australia’s political processes are the same thing, or are even remotely connected. The former is desirable and to be encouraged; it’s the sort of civic participation and engagement we should admire in all citizens. The latter would be completely unacceptable and should be avoided at all costs.

Apart from the above three points, there are a few erroneous assumptions on which the story seems to be founded. First, there are no such things as, as the article says, ‘official Australia-focused WeChat news accounts’. Like Facebook and Twitter, WeChat is a social media platform that carries wide-ranging and diversely-sourced content, whose ideological landscape is, despite the CCP’s determined and heavy-handed attempts at control and censorship, extremely fragmented and contested.

Second, the story cites only one piece of research that is tangentially related to WeChat, but this turns out to be a red-herring as far as the issue of WeChat and Australian elections is concerned. The online Chinese-language news websites in Australia, some of which deliver their content through WeChat, may indeed shy away from covering criticism of the CCP, as that research demonstrates, but this content is not produced by WeChat per se; it is produced by profit-driven Chinese-Australian media entrepreneurs.

Furthermore, for the same reason that beating up politically sensitive issues (especially about China) helps sell papers for the English-language media, avoiding political content and practising sensationalism may help to ensure the economic survival, even the profitability, of Chinese-language media outlets. In other words, in trying to survive in the niche between a Chinese state media propaganda system and an English-speaking Australian media that do not seem particularly interested to give voice to the views and concerns of Australia’s Chinese community, these Chinese-language WeChat outlets seem to be employing a modus operandi that is no more sinister than that of their English-language media counterparts.

So, what do we know about WeChat and Australian elections so far? Our own research corroborates existing findings suggesting that WeChat may have been used to win votes. For example, the Coalition’s success in using WeChat to win marginal seats in Victoria in the 2016 election is a case in point. Labor politicians at various levels have subsequently made efforts to improve their presence in this space by setting up WeChat subscription accounts. Furthermore, we witnessed during the recent state election in Victoria that Mandarin-speaking voters from Chinese communities in that state displayed an unprecedented level of interest in the Victorian election, much of it generated by the ubiquitous use of WeChat. And we predict more intense use of WeChat by both major parties in the forthcoming Federal and NSW state elections.

In order to get a clear sense of this issue, we have been following a few politically oriented WeChat groups. These groups can be based on political affiliations (e.g., to the ALP or the Liberal Party) or on specific geographical and electoral areas (e.g., in Victoria there are groups focused on Waverley, Chisholm, the South-east, the North and the West). The groups that interest us most are those whose members explicitly identify themselves as multicultural citizens of Australia who are keen to learn about how to participate in Australia’s democratic processes regardless of their political affiliations. One such group has more than 200 members, including Chisholm’s Liberal candidate, Hong Kong migrant Gladys Liu, and Labor’s candidate, Taiwan migrant Jennifer Yang. Even though most of the members are Mandarin-speaking migrants from the PRC and are divided into Liberal and Labor supporters, they are united by a conviction that getting more Chinese-Australians to participate in Australian politics is a good thing—even if the candidates they are backing are not originally from the PRC themselves.

Our research into the activities of these WeChat groups has so far found no evidence of the CCP’s interference, and ample evidence of Chinese-Australians trying to engage sincerely in Australia’s political processes.

Reactions to the SMH story from Chinese-Australian communities have been swift and overwhelming. The article has been widely circulated on various WeChat group postings, and at least two local Chinese-language media have written editorial comments in response to it, including an online survey on Sydney Impressions (a WeChat public account) gathering people’s responses. Their reactions range from indignation and bewilderment to resignation and disappointment.

The SMH story is an expression of fear, but at the same time it also gives rise to another kind of fear on the part of the Chinese-Australian community. Being subjected to close scrutiny and censorship by the Chinese government is something that diasporic Chinese communities have learned to live with; but the prospect of also being singled out for scrutiny by the Australian government in their use of WeChat in their adopted country, which the SMH article hints at, sends shivers down their collective spine. This fear is understandable, given how ubiquitous this social media platform has become in their everyday lives.

Their anger is also understandable. Journalism of this kind does little more than alienate Chinese-Australian citizens even more, reinforcing the view that they should never be trusted no matter how long they have been citizens here, and no matter how hard they have tried to integrate into mainstream multicultural society.

Needless to say, we should remain open to and alert for any evidence of CCP interference in Australia’s political processes, if and when it presents itself in the future. In the meantime, however, it would be a refreshing change if mainstream media reports such as the SMH story could be based more on evidence and less on opinion and speculation. This would go a long way towards building a better informed and more cohesive multicultural society.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney.  Haiqing Yu is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. Sun and Yu currently lead an Australian Research Council Discovery Project, ‘Chinese-Language Digital/Social Media in Australia: Rethinking Soft Power’ (2018-2020).

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5 Responses to WANNING SUN AND HAIQING YU. WeChat, the Federal Election, and the Danger of Insinuative Journalism

  1. Hans Rijsdijk says:

    This article shows how easy it seems to be to spread misinformation which in turn fuels xenophobia and racism.
    A healthy degree of scepticism is necessary to try to filter truth from untruth. Often not an easy job.

  2. Charles Lowe says:

    I’m inclined to accept the arguments presented.

    I note, however, that the authors (I think singularly and knowingly) refuse to mention the 2017 edict from the Chinese Government that it has the overarching right to determine what may and may not be said on sites that they can control.

  3. Anthony Pun says:

    Prof Wanning Sun’s article is an honest reflection of the feeling of the Chinese Australian community that such reports in the SMH are sensational fear mongering and has an effect of demonetizing the community with xenophobic overtones.
    This type of media report is common and has characteristics of sensationalism, “wedging” politics, and creating conflict based on geopolitics; and frequently quoting reliable sources of information which cannot be substantiated. “Intelligent” sources are frequently used!
    WeChat is a tool like WhatsApp and in our democracy, every citizen has to the right to use it to comment and influence political outcomes. The claim by the media that this tool used by the average Chinese Australians is linked to the CCP, is pure speculation.
    Chinese Australians are intelligent enough to use WeChat for domestic political purposes and the suggestion that CCP is somehow involved is science fiction. We are not spies for the CCP!!!

  4. Bob Aikenhead says:

    ASPI operatives miss no opportunity to spin any occurrence that is connected with China into a story (appropriate term) about how China is threatening Australia. Australian media (including, generally, the ABC) lap it up uncritically.

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    Hmm.

    Well those kinds of security initiatives rarely announce themselves. So we are left relying on the assessment of ‘experts’. Among which group there will be disagreement.

    Based on the behaviour of China and other governments, I don’t see any reason to doubt this as a possibility.

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