Forget TikTok. China’s Powerhouse App Is WeChat, and Its Power Is Sweeping.

from NYTs

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.

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14 Comments

  1. I found this article very intriguing and relevant to current events in the United States. Before reading the article, I had never heard of WeChat. It shows that many apps, especially social media, tend to have a distorted perception. Content showed, rumors or gossip spread on these apps can lead to conspiracy theories that many will even start to believe in. Generally, it only shows one perspective and normally an inaccurate one. This is why President Trump has felt so threatened by the widely popular app TikTok. TikTok allows for conspiracy theories and rumors to spread that are usually untrue. It also poses a national security threat to the United States, along with WeChat. The way China handles the app WeChat was honestly pretty scary to read about. The amount of censorship and surveillance on the app was shocking. It made me wonder how much of the content I see on apps is censored or monitored. It was really scary to read what happened to Ms.Li and that a government could have that much control and censorship over its people. It seemed crazy to me that police showed up to her door with guns and riot shields all over an article she had posted to WeChat. Even if she were to leave China or if someone from outside of China were to chat with her it would carry the same censorship and surveillance. It definitely made me question how much of my very online life could be monitored by the government unknowingly. I found it so interesting that their perspective on WeChat was so narrow, many did not even know what was really going on in the outside world. The fact that the Chinese government has such control over its people and WeChat, was pretty alarming to see that a life like that could exist. It does not even matter if one switches apps because most of the propaganda and rumors will still circulate there as well. While I am still unsure of the threat of TikTok, the threat WeChat poses is real. China’s surveillance through the app is expanding to the United States and threatening our national security.

  2. The article on WeChat had me thinking twice about many things relating to technology and the effects it had on society. Throughout the years more apps have been coming out to help with communication within the population. Some examples of this could be Facebook and Instagram. Not only do you get to communicate with people that you do not see every day, but you can see what is going through their head. The article brings up how TikTok, another Chinese based app, had created an uproar with WeChat. Personally, I have never heard of WeChat prior to reading the article but it seems to be a mixture of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. To me this is a great idea because instead of downloading multiple apps you have one universal one. It can be seen on all social media sights that people talk about there feelings towards other public figures and people they personally know. Where the issue arose is when they started making false truths about public figures and this started to spread across the nation like wildfire. I do think that these apps are a useful tool in society because information can spread so quickly, which is where the negative can also come about. In President Trumps instance, people where talking negative upon him and making false accusations which led to a wide mass of people believing a lie. This is when he wanted to shut down and banned the apps. I do not agree with this decision because everyday people get talked to negatively on social media. He is not the only one that has had to deal with this, but he is the one who can do something about it such as banning the app.
    The women in the article showed me that it is hard to create something with good intent and in the end have people come at you negatively. For instance, she got taken to the police department and was on the verge of police misconduct when ultimately, they had to allow her to go back. These services that are made by a person should not lead to them holding all the consequences, but everyone at fault should be held responsible. That I believe is what boils down to the WeChat debate because there was a good intentional purpose of the app, but people converted it to a negative one.
    I do not believe that these apps should be shut down because the one person being affected has the power to do so. If anything, sometimes the apps bring to light the wrong doings of some public figures and how there are consequences to being caught.

  3. While reading this article about the Chinese App WeChat, I found out a lot of interesting information about the way that China tracks their apps. The craziest part to me was thinking about the lack of care that American’s have while they post on their social media accounts. What really sparked my interest was the story about how Ms. Li, posted about politics on her account and the police showed up at her door. I was flabbergasted to think that they would show up at her door just based on a post that she made. Along with the police coming to her house, I think that it was insane that she got thrown into jail, based off of what she said on an internet app. This article really put into perspective the idea of free speech and the way that it affects our culture, compared to china’s culture. The limit that they have, makes me grateful for my freedom of speech in America. What I also found interesting in this article was that Chinese people, don’t think that there is another app that they would transfer to. WeChat has become such a large part of their life, that they describe leaving the app as a void in their life. Since Ms. Li will not remove this app from her life because she thinks it is essential, the article discussed how she now uses the app with typos and code words, so she won’t have to run into trouble anymore. I would like to compare this app to the concept of taking away our phones in the United States, because that is how I felt the lack of this app would have on these people. While being on the topic of removal, President Trump, has even discussed removing this app from the US, because they are afraid of the national security breach that it could cause. Since this app is also owned by the creators of Tic Toc, the new app of the times, Trump is afraid that they will be gaining too much information from the United States.
    Overall I think that the control that China has over their social media platforms is insane, and makes me feel uncomfortable for the people in China. They are being fed lies, and there is nothing that they can do about it, unless they want to be thrown into jail or be killed. To end this comment, I would like to end with my favorite quote from the article. My favorite quote was said by Fang Kecheng, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He said “Information is like water. Water quality can be improved, but without any flow, water easily grows fetid”(Mozur). I think that this quote sums up the whole idea of the messages that are being spread on the internet. The comparison to water makes the reader understand how fast the information gets spread and can go south so quickly.

  4. WeChat a Chinese based app that I never heard of before until reading this article. WeChat looks to be a similar app to what we have nowadays called Facebook. Which you can talk to other people, see what they are doing and see what they talk about on their everyday lives. The technology we have now is crazy, because we can get things done on any phone or computer within seconds and it becomes scary because we don’t know if the government is watching or hearing us. There was this whole debate on whether China can see your information on while using TikTok and I believe this was true. Many users of Tik Tok were shocked about this and had their own opinion but this isn’t the first time china has done something like this, that they are watching us or spying on what we do. I believe that the government can see what we do on our phones and hear us while we are on calls. This is creepy because what can we do about it. Others in China, make other apps with all the security they need in order to get what they want. For example Ms. Li thinks the app WeChat is a good app and thinks she won’t get in trouble. I don’t believe this is a good idea due to the fact that when they may have extra security on WeChat, but they also may have access to what we are saying or talking about. Trump wanted to ban the app tik Tok and make a American company own it and it became the talk of some news and it didn’t really work out of it. Trump was being selfish because he knew the app was from china and many people around the U.S were into it, so he wanted to take control. WeChat we don’t know what china may be up to, so for me its a no because of they may be spying on us or wanting to be in many peoples lives that have nothing to do with them. I do believe that when the lady got taken into custody, which was wrong for having her own app, but every crime has its own consequence, so she knew what was going to happen, and it became a negative outcome, even though she thought it was a positive. Also information we speak about on a daily basis can/gets passed around everyday, and to whom we don’t know which is why I don’t like apps that sound very suspicious.

  5. If you haven’t heard of the impending TikTok ban then you must have been in a hole in the ground. However, reading this article made me feel just as out of the loop until I finished it. WeChat is an entire facet to governmental control and management of Chinese livelihood and propaganda in the modern age, and nobody knows about it. Unless you’re the chinese citizens themselves who utilize it in multiple forms of their day to day lives. It’s their version of Facebook, Message Apps, Venmo/CashApp, and apparently even a prominent news gathering service. China’s government itself highly promotes and utilizes the social media service to keep tabs on citizens and their streams of information. Citizens such as Joanne Li have shocked my understanding of Chinese social media culture – when she was introduced to the app, she had tons of information and propaganda pushed on her she later realized was false.

    I was both shocked and appalled to realize that of course Communistic and government controlled narratives rule the app. When I think of propaganda I don’t usually think of social media, but it is the next obvious step in actuality. Even more wild is the regulation and silencing of any kind of anti-government speech. Algorithms for apps like these are so complex, intense, and on-the-rise that they end up getting young forward thinkers, like Joanne Li, who are investigating “negative views” thrown in the slammer.

    It’s not an easy conversation to have about banning WeChat in other countries or finding a different app to use for the Chinese citizens. WeChat IS the source of communication. It saddens me to hear that Joanne Li feels hopeless about the predicament as she would not be able to talk to her mother or anyone else for that matter without WeChat. I feel a lot more informed on the entire conversation around Chinese apps and systems in other countries’ pockets.

    I do not think the apps like WeChat or TikTok should be shut down because it would limit speech for all members of society in multiple ways. Whether that be users of TikTok or users of WeChat that maintain semblances of Chinese digital culture. There are pros and cons to keeping apps like these here. The question becomes how deep do those cons go, and only the advancement of technology will reveal that.

  6. OMG! Don’t even get me started with WeChat. My mom uses it religiously everyday and basically replaces iMessage with it. My entire family tree line and other Asians I know communicates with WeChat. “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.” This statement by Paul Mozur is completely true. I’ve looked through my mom, cousins, and siblings app and all they do is gossip. There are major WeChat group chats. It seems as if it is their own little virtual community. My mom recently invited me to her family group chat on the app that includes my grandparents, cousins and aunts and uncles. I refuse to use it because it is too hectic. Let me tell you, all they do is gossip and talk about anything and everything all day. I don’t even think I have time to do all that.
    “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.” I have heard stories about friends and old flames rekindling over Wechat. Honestly, it sounds like another Instagram to me. They both provide the same services–sharing photos,’ liking’ other people’s content, sharing thoughts on their pages, messaging each other, and being able to find and ‘follow’ past people that will eventually pop up on your feed due to mutual connections through fellow friends. Thus, I am not surprised that China has been monitoring what people say since it is so widely used.
    “As a cornerstone of China’s surveillance state, WeChat is now considered a national security threat in the United States. The Trump administration has proposed banning WeChat outright, along with the Chinese short video app TikTok.” I am aware that the U.S. was planning to ban TikTok and Wechat in fear China is spying on our country. My mom was not happy about the news, but I am not really affected by it since I don’t use it anyways.

  7. As we moved through the phases of our education, there is one thing that remained constant: use reputable sources to prove your point. I remember sitting in the library as an elementary school child, being told to avoid dot-com sources, sources without authors, sources without their own citations. “If you can find the information on three or more different sources, then it is considered common knowledge and likely true,” my librarian told my class every single year.

    The world has changed substantially in the last ten years (What a fast ten years it has been! Elementary school feels so recent yet so distant.). The development of smart technology, social media, and faster networks have created a society of immediacy in which information is published, shared, and received in a matter of seconds. At 8:00:00 p.m., the president could say, “I love America.” At 8:00:15 p.m., someone watching the president speak could post on social media the president’s quote. At 8:00:16 p.m., just a second later, a different user across the world could see this post and know that the president said, “I love America.” In just sixteen seconds (and sometimes even less), an event in America could be news in China.

    While the access provided to us by these new developments is advantageous, there is also a major downside to it: there is no filter. While Facebook has recently stepped up its misinformation initiative in order to label posts that may contact false information pertaining to politics and the upcoming election, aside from that, there is no real monitoring or filtering of information. This allows rumors to fly. At 8:00:00 p.m., the president could say, “I love America.” At 8:00:15 p.m., a user posts that the president said he hates America. By 8:00:20 p.m., ten other users have reposted it. By 8:01:00 p.m., one hundred other users have reposted it. Someone in the comments corrects the original poster, but the one hundred ten people who reposted it do not see this correction. They believe the rumor that the president said he hates America.

    That is how social media fires start and spread.

    On top of the distribution of information, social media and similar apps are often the primary platforms that people use for communication: oftentimes people will use Messenger, Instagram DM’s, WhatsApp, and, of course, WeChat to interact with friends and family and stay up-to-date on their lives.

    This is the reality in the United States—but it goes even further in China, as evidenced by the New York Times article. WeChat (which, quite frankly, I had never heard of before today) is used by citizens, by government officials, by coworkers, by stores—WeChat is ingrained into many facets of daily life for Chinese citizens, and it has become the norm for most people (And I bet most of these people do not fact-check the rumors flying on the app; I cannot imagine that it differs from other social media platforms in that respect.).

    So what can we do when an app that controls our lives is rife with misinformation?

    Well, the United States’ answer is to ban these apps. If we do that, there is no threat of them taking over our lives or creating a “security breach” (a.k.a. the president’s primary concern—he does not care much for social media misinformation as he often spreads it himself).

    In China, though, there seems to be no good solution. If you delete the app, you fall out of touch with the rest of your community and may not even be able to function properly (The article mentions that the app is used to order groceries, for crying out loud! Talk about really integrating technology into every corner of society.). If you keep the app, you are subject to rumors, misinformation, and everything else that comes hand-in-hand with unfiltered media.

    All that I can say is that I hope we develop solutions to better monitor what is spread on social media. Of course, I do not want anybody to be censored or feel that they cannot express themselves (I want everybody to take advantage of the ability to speak freely)—but if Facebook’s initiative for fact-checking and flagging could be expanded further, I cannot say I would mind.

  8. Until I read this article, I had no idea what WeChat was and after reading it is, I found it truly scary about what the government can do through an app. After reading this article I found that WeChat, a Chinese messaging and social media app, has been deemed as “a national security threat in the United States”. Today, there is a very similar case going on with another Chinese app called, TikTok. Personally, the banning of TikTok and possible banning of WeChat, would not affect me at all; I have never used or downloaded the apps before, not because I was scared of the possible repercussions, but because the app simply did not interest me. What really shocked me from the article was what Ms. Li had to go through. Ms. Li, a Toronto native, was a user of WeChat and realized over time that Wechat was “filled with gossip, conspiracy theories and outright lies”. She then proceeded to write an article about this topic and her thoughts. The following day, there were four police officers that entered her family’s apartment with guns and riot shields. To me, this is ridiculous, but at the same time, very terrifying. Ms. Li has every right to say and share whatever she wants. The fact that one person’s article made whoever so upset, scares me because it just shows that there is a difference in freedom of speech. Another thing that shocked me was the authorities confiscated her laptop and WeChat account so that they can see who she was contacting, which included her friends from outside and inside Chinese borders. They also locked her up on a chair to question her multiple times and even locked her up for a night in jail. All of this happened and occurred because one person from Canada made a post that negatively talked about what the Chinese government was doing, in a sense of propaganda within social media use. Ms. Li suffers from the crucial punishment she went through from the police, as “now the app reminds her of jail”. I did not think using social media could cause such a problem with the government and it makes me wonder, “what if I say something and this happens to me?” Ms. Li definitely did not expect the authorities to show up at her house after the post and it is scary how fast the government can track everything down.

  9. I am always interested in social media so this article caught my eye. The author introduced me to the Chinese social media app WeChat. I personally have never heard of this app and was shocked by how it operates. According to the author, on WeChat Donald Trump was portrayed as an “an admired leader and impressive businessman.” The author believed this lie and was very confused when she talked to foreigners and heard the complete opposite about him. After doing more research the author realized that WeChat is “filled with gossip, conspiracy theories and outright lies.” A social media app like that is very dangerous and can lead a population to believing stuff that is completely false. Some other crazy lies on the app were, “the Canada prime minister was legalizing hard drugs” and “Canada was selling marijuana in grocery stores.” Another scary aspect of that app was they were censoring important news that was important to the general public. The issue with WeChat is it is the main social media that does so many things such as swapping stories, talking to old classmates, paying bills, coordinating with co-workers, posting envy-inducing vacation photos, buying stuff and getting news. Since the app has so many different functions it is almost impossible for the Chinese people in China to stay off it. The Chinese government is clearly using WeChat as a “powerful tool for social control”. WeChat is now considered a national security threat in our country. Trump administration has pushed for the banning of WeChat and also TikTok, which is very popular in our country. The difference between the two apps is TikTok does not put out fake information on its app even though they were both based in China. I was very shocked after reading this article. I have never heard of WeChat before and never knew how much censoring they did. A government censoring news and putting out fake news is ridiculous, and I feel like other countries should step in and stop the Chinese government from doing this. It makes sense why the Trump administration would ban the app, but I have never understood why Trump wants to ban TikTok. TikTok has been a very successful entertainment app ever since it surfaced and there is literally no reason to ban it. Many young people have made careers on the app and it would be very bad if they banned the app in our country.

  10. After reading this article about WeChat, I started thinking about social media has the power to manipulate people. Throughout the article, there were false accusations of the Prime Minister of Canada legalizing selling hard drugs in grocery stores. These types of false claims should not be allowed to be posted anywhere regardless of the country. Wechat in China is equivalent to Facebook or Instagram to people in the US. Throughout the article, it was stated that Chinese people are refusing to switch to a different app. They are addicted. It does not make sense to what extend the Chinese government will go to keep control. Ms. Li was arrested and thrown into jail after one of the posts she made on the app. Unfortunately, WeChat is the source of communication that is used by every citizen in China. The Chinese government is creating propaganda that steers citizens’ opinions on a certain side. The citizens have no power in China and are either faced with jail sentences or death if they do not abide by China’s outrageous laws.

  11. The relationship between the United States and China is very controversial. It is weird because we depend on each other for so much, but it seems like we can stand each other. I think that both parties understand they are not the biggest fans of each other, but the relationship is necessary for their respective economies. Honestly, sometimes I think the United States government is intimidated by the Chinese government, so they act accordingly. There have been a lot of claims that these apps that are made by Chinese developers are just using and selling our data. Tik Tok is one of the most popular social media platforms right now, but it also has the potential of being banned right now for what they do with our data. This is not the first time this has happened either. I remember when I was in middle school there was a popular app that was developed by the Chinese called “Flappy Bird” To us, the game was harmless, it was a little simple game that we played on our phones pretty much anywhere. Then it was removed from the App Store completely, but people still had access because it was on their phones. I remember seeing people upselling the iPhone by more than its retail just because “Flappy Bird” was on it, it was ridiculous. Also, it is quite hypocritical that the government is so worried about other countries and what they are doing with our data, yet they are not transparent with the data that is even inside our own country. WeChat seems like a more dangerous platform than Tik Tok because of the actions that can be completed on it. It is very crazy that our data is not safe, but it is something that has been going on and I believe will keep happening. Whenever we download an app or software on our phones, we are not reading the huge licensing agreement before we agree to it. In the agreement, there usually somewhere where we are consenting to them using our data and we do not even realize. I do not foresee our data not being compromised in the future because of what the governments are getting from it.

  12. This article was extremely creepy and concerning. WeChat is an all in one application used both in China and outside their borders. On WeChat, you can share, “stories, talk to old classmates, pay bills, coordinate with co-workers, post envy-inducing vacation photos, buy stuff and get news.” One of the scariest aspects of the app is that it greatly censors what news citizens in China can see. Censorship is built in the app, which doesn’t allow anyone in China to view articles that would essential showcase the country in a bad light. Users of WeChat in countries outside of Chinese boarders do not encounter these same censorships, but that’s what makes it increasingly scarier. The app scans through user’s accounts outside of China in order to better train the Chinese algorithms to detect news that should be censored.
    My biggest concern with this is not how it’s effecting the US, but how it’s effecting China. I feel bad that they are subject to such propaganda and have no way to avoid, it even if they want to. In the article, Ms. Li even states how she can’t use an alternative app. The app was built to be an all-encompassing tool that is hard to live without. Not only does it connect her to her loved ones overseas, but it’s a tool for paying bills and obtaining any and all news, even if it’s untrue. She later explains WeChat as being, “for shopping, paying, or work, you have to use it. If you jump to another app, then you are alone.” I find this really sad and relatable. Many of my aunts live in Central America and the only way for my mom and I to communicate with them is via WhatsApp. WhatsApp is similar to WeChat in the aspect that it provides communication means for family and friends who live far. Luckily, WhatsApp does not have all the additional features WeChat does, and there are no invasive privacy features.
    The last aspect of the app I found very frightening is how it’s monitored by the Chinese government. In the article, Li described a scary encounter she had with Chinese police as a result of WeChat. Li had posted an article on the app about how the relationship between
    China and Canada are deteriorating as a result of COVID-19. This violated their propaganda guidelines and the next day she was detained at the police station for several days and nights. Finally, she was released after writing a statement and vowing to support China. I can’t even imagine a world where I was arrested for posting something online. While I do find this concerning all together, its most harmful to the Chinese. They have no way to escape the tight grasp their government has on everyone. Being outside of Chinese boarders doesn’t even mean they will have access to unbiased media. When someone with the WeChat app leaves China, they still possess the same propaganda criteria on their app. Even if they want to escape the Chinese media, they can’t. It doesn’t look probable that this will change anytime soon, but hopefully more people become increasingly aware of the negative effects of the app. It would take a lot of boycotting for the app to become obsolete and I’m sure another censoring app would follow in its place. That’s why educating people on this topic is a responsibility we all have.

  13. The topic of applications being watched by the US government is not new anymore, but this article was very interesting. Tik Tok has been in the news for a while now, and it is not the only application that has been having legal problems. I think that Tik Tok is being watched so carefully because of WeChat. WeChat has built a legacy of spreading rumors that seem trustworthy but cannot be trusted because they are not true. Tik Tok being accused of taking information is bad but there are other reasons Trump and his administration want it banned. Trump is in a tough spot with the election coming up and does not want any false or hurtful information coming out. Especially on Tik Tok because information spreads very fast on an app that has so many downloads. This raises the question of how much control do they have to monitor and censor what everyone sees on the app. There could be important information being withheld from the public because they want to stop the spread of rumors. WeChat already has so many functions that can cause so many problems in the United States. They are a social media platform that can lead to the spread of rumors and false information that can cause a problem with the election. They have a mobile payment feature that can lead to hacks and stolen information such as addresses and payment info. Also, since all social media platforms have much more influence than other forms of news, this can cause problems with not all information being truthful. Words can be twisted or even straight-up changed. China tracks online information much more than the US and the fact that they are doing that in America is not a good look because in America there are certain standards with information privacy and apps that breach that privacy will be in hot water.

  14. This article blew me away. While I knew that China was notorious for censorship I had no idea that their reach extended into other countries. I was particularly shocked by the fact that someone living in Canada was experiencing such blatant censorship and being fed false information and propaganda. Though TikTok seems to have dominated the news because of the president’s threats to ban it, I think that based on the information in this article, WeChat should get equal, if not more, attention. I was also interested to learn that when a Chinese citizen creates an account inside of the country they will have that account monitored internationally as well. While someone from a country like the United States would likely only experience censorship when inside the borders of China.

    While in the United States algorithms are the largest determinant of what content users see, it is also worth noting that “The filter bubbles on WeChat have nothing to do with algorithms — they come from China’s closed internet ecosystem and censorship” (Kecheng). If this messaging platform is not banned it should at the very least come with some kind of warning from the app stores about what it does and how users might experience censorship and propaganda when using it.

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