A Swiss army knife app: what is WeChat and how is it being used in Australia’s 2022 federal election? | Australian election 2022

WeChat has become a key arena for Australian politicians, media and party faithful to communicate election messaging, but among the usual campaign fare, unauthorised attack ads and wildly enthusiastic “news” articles about candidates have become commonplace.

There are also signs that WeChat could again be weaponised with fake news and misleading content, as it was in 2019.

There are about three million users of WeChat in Australia.

Here’s what we know about how the campaign is playing out on the network so far.

What is WeChat?

WeChat is sometimes referred to as a Swiss army knife application: a mega app combining the functionality of Facebook, WhatsApp, Uber and Paypal.

It has become so ubiquitous in China that it’s hard to function without a WeChat account. It’s needed to pay for goods and to order taxis. Even street food vendors now display the QR codes that drive the system. WeChat is also a major publishing, advertising and communications tool for businesses, both inside and outside China.

“Official accounts”, also known as WeChat subscriptions, are like Facebook pages where you can follow and read the latest posts published by the page owner. This is where Chinese-language media operate, along with other organisations and businesses.

You need to be a Chinese citizen to apply for an official account, but foreign companies and Australian politicians have obtained accounts through agencies based in China, who offer to register the account on behalf of the organisation.

WeChat also has private accounts, which are like a Facebook personal account. With the private account, you can post or participate in individual chats or group chats with friends.

But because it is based in China, and subject to censorship rules of the Chinese Communist Party, WeChat is not the same as platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp – and any decision to use it by Australian political parties comes with risks.

Is news on WeChat censored?

A recent Lowy Institute survey on Being Chinese in Australia found that while most Chinese-Australians rely on WeChat for Chinese-language news (86%) and contact with friends and family (66%), many are sceptical about the reliability of news shared on the platform.

WeChat applies censorship algorithms to news regarded as sensitive to the Chinese government and some subjects are taboo.

“WeChat may be driving the most substantial and harmful changes ever observed in Australia’s Chinese-language media sector,” researcher Alex Joske wrote in his 2020 paper The Influence Environment for the thinktank Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

“On the one hand, the app is particularly important to Chinese-Australians and helps people stay connected to friends and family in China. It’s also the most popular platform used by Chinese-Australians to access news.

However, WeChat raises concerns because of its record of censorship, information control and surveillance, which align with Beijing’s objectives.

“Media outlets on WeChat face tight restrictions that facilitate CCP influence by pushing the vast majority of news accounts targeting Australian audiences to register in China. Networks and information sharing within the app are opaque, contributing to the spread of disinformation.”

Take for example the current issue of China’s security agreement with Solomons.

Sydney Today, a Chinese-Australian publication which is owned by Media Today, published a story from 9News about the issue, which it translated into Chinese.

Despite being no more than a report of public comments by the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, that “Australia was deeply disappointed” the Solomons had signed the agreement, it carried a disclaimer. “This article is from 9News, which only represents the original source and the original author’s point of view. It is for reference only and does not represent the attitude and position of this website.”

The story did not appear at all on Sydney Today’s WeChat account.

Observers said that it was unlikely the Solomons security story would find its way onto any WeChat news sites. There has also been very limited coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on WeChat, with coverage skewed toward Russian statements about the war and its progress.

Some publications, like Sydney Today, have developed their own apps to deliver their news to customers on their phones as a means of being able to exercise more control. But many rely on WeChat and, in doing so, tacitly subscribe to this level of censorship.

While there is potential for ads and editorial to be misleading or censored, the real risk lies with party operatives and others seeking to influence the election by spreading “fake news” in WeChat groups, which are much harder to monitor and control than public pages.

In the 2019 election Labor complained to WeChat about a high volume of misleading anti-Labor material, some of which could be traced back to Liberal party members.

There has been at least one report of misinformation circulating this time around but the risks of “fake news” being seeded into chat groups is likely to increase as the election draws closer.

How are Australian politicians using WeChat?

Realising that WeChat is an extremely powerful tool to reach Chinese-Australian voters, a number of Australian politicians have opened accounts – sometimes official accounts, sometimes personal accounts.

Among those actively using WeChat in this campaign are Carina Garland, Labor’s candidate in Chisholm; Anthony Albanese (the account is called Labor Leader); and Clare O’Neil, the Labor MP for Hotham.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is buying banner advertisements on WeChat news sites and his staff is using it to recruit volunteers and organise functions.

But Fergus Ryan at Aspi warns WeChat is no ordinary social media platform.

“Let me put it bluntly: any politician or political party that sees no problem with treating WeChat as a normal social media platform is tacitly compliant with state-sponsored interference in the upcoming election,” he says.

“It’s well beyond time that both the Liberal and Labor parties set their own immediate political needs aside and mutually agree to stop using WeChat as a campaign channel and to start work on bipartisan legislation to properly regulate this influential platform.”

What happened to Scott Morrison’s WeChat account?

In January, it was reported the prime minister’s WeChat account had been hacked. In fact, the story was more complicated.

Morrison’s official account had been registered to an unknown man in Fujian province, Mr Li, as a way of getting round the terms and conditions of WeChat that prevent foreigners having official accounts.

Li had apparently sold the account and the 75,000 subscribers to another Chinese man, who told the PM’s followers the account was being transferred and rebranded as “New Life for Chinese-Australians”.

In their enthusiasm to get access to the popular social media site, politicians and businesses are regularly using agency arrangements, which often involve a Chinese social media agency in Australia and an agent in China which legally holds the account.

The risks inherent in the agency arrangement are clear – not only can you lose control but you are submitting to the censorship of WeChat.

The major parties did not respond to questions about their approach to WeChat in this election.

How is WeChat being used to recruit campaign volunteers?

WeChat is being used to build Chinese speaking volunteer networks from among Chinese student populations.

For example, an advertisement in Chinese targeted at recruiting volunteers in the Sydney seat of Bennelong.

“We need volunteers. Location: Eastwood Shopping Mall. Time: Monday to Saturday (from May 2 to May 21) from 9am to 6pm, you can choose half day or full day,” one advertisement appearing on WeChat reads.

“We provide tea, lunch, water and transport, we will give volunteer a certificate of work experience.”

Frydenberg’s campaign has been recruiting in his seat of Kooyong.

Ye Xue, a researcher at Australian National University who is studying international students and their engagement with politics, said the volunteering certificate is a big drawcard because it looks good on a student’s CV. The involvement also provides an opportunity to network with business and political elites.

But he said some international students may not fully appreciate the activity they are being asked to do is campaign for a political party, and that it could embroil them in heated discussions with other students.