Just after the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Joanne Li realized the app that connected her to fellow Chinese immigrants had disconnected her from reality.
Everything she saw on the Chinese app, WeChat, indicated Donald J. Trump was an admired leader and impressive businessman. She believed it was the unquestioned consensus on the newly elected American president. “But then I started talking to some foreigners about him, non-Chinese,” she said. “I was totally confused.”
She began to read more widely, and Ms. Li, who lived in Toronto at the time, increasingly found WeChat filled with gossip, conspiracy theories and outright lies. One article claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada planned to legalize hard drugs. Another rumor purported that Canada had begun selling marijuana in grocery stores. A post from a news account in Shanghai warned Chinese people to take care lest they accidentally bring the drug back from Canada and get arrested.
She also questioned what was being said about China. When a top Huawei executive was arrested in Canada in 2018, articles from foreign news media were quickly censored on WeChat. Her Chinese friends both inside and outside China began to say that Canada had no justice, which contradicted her own experience. “All of a sudden I discovered talking to others about the issue didn’t make sense,” Ms. Li said. “It felt like if I only watched Chinese media, all of my thoughts would be different.”
Ms. Li had little choice but to take the bad with the good. Built to be everything for everyone, WeChat is indispensable.
For most Chinese people in China, WeChat is a sort of all-in-one app: a way to swap stories, talk to old classmates, pay bills, coordinate with co-workers, post envy-inducing vacation photos, buy stuff and get news. For the millions of members of China’s diaspora, it is the bridge that links them to the trappings of home, from family chatter to food photos.