By Mattew Knott
April 20, 2023
Chinese-owned messaging apps such as WeChat are so vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation that democratic nations such as Australia should ban them in their current form, a Senate inquiry into foreign interference through social media has heard.
Seth Kaplan, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told the Senate committee on Thursday that, despite the recent focus on the potential national security risks of TikTok, WeChat posed a more profound threat than the popular video-sharing app.
Chinese-owned messaging apps such as WeChat are vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation.CREDIT:OLIVIA MARTIN-MCGUIRE
WeChat, owned by Chinese technology company Tencent, is widely used among the Chinese diaspora in Australia and is believed to have around 1 million Australian users.
“Everything that we fear about what TikTok may become already is occurring on WeChat,” said Kaplan, who has written widely about the app.
“It’s worse than Tiktok ... narratives are managed, information is managed, dissenting views are demoted or eliminated. And it’s basically a narrative machine for the [Chinese Communist Party] and what it wants to promote.”
Kaplan described the app as part of Beijing’s mass surveillance network, saying the regime uses it to spy on and influence Chinese communities around the world.
“[WeChat is] worse than Tiktok ... narratives are managed, information is managed, dissenting views are demoted or eliminated.”
Seth Kaplan, Johns Hopkins University
Kaplan said democratic nations should try to force apps such as WeChat to comply with stricter regulations and closer monitoring but that the company’s ownership structure meant this was unlikely to be possible.
“I’m generally in favour of a ban,” he said.
“I don’t think, if the public square is important to us, we have anything that we can do besides make very clear guidelines, and then ban it if it’s not meeting those guidelines.”
As well as providing a messaging service similar to WhatsApp, WeChat allows users to make payments, book movie tickets and play games.
Kaplan acknowledged a ban would be hugely disruptive for diaspora communities who use the app to communicate with family in China and send remittances, saying he wished he had an easier solution to the problem.
The Lowy Institute’s Being Chinese in Australia report, released this week, found that 47 per cent of Chinese-Australians use WeChat, only slightly behind Facebook on 49 per cent.
Kaplan said a forced sale – which the Biden administration has threatened against TikTok in the US – was not an option for WeChat because of its ownership structure, he said.
China’s National Intelligence Law requires organisations and citizens to “support, assist and co-operate with the state intelligence work”.
In a submission to the inquiry, WeChat said the app – as opposed to Chinese sister app Weixin – is designed for users outside China and is not governed by Chinese law.
Parent company Tencent has previously said that WeChat allows users to privately communicate with each other, that no content is pushed to users and Tencent exercises no editorial control over what users see.
Committee chair and opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson, a China hawk who has led the push for a crackdown on Chinese-owned apps, said WeChat was an “essential communications tool” for many Chinese-Australians and banning it “could have very detrimental effects on diasporic communities”.
Opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson said there could be “very detrimental effects” for the Chinese-Australian community if that app was banned. CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN
The federal government recently announced a ban on TikTok on government devices but has not put a similar restriction on the use of WeChat, which politicians from across the spectrum have used to court Chinese-Australian voters.
Then-prime minister Scott Morrison’s WeChat account, which had about 76,000 followers, was taken over and rebranded “Australian Chinese new life” last January, with the government given no prior warning. This led to a boycott of the app among some Coalition MPs, who saw it as an act of retaliation for the government’s policies on China.
Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said he essentially agreed with Kaplan’s view that a ban may be necessary.
“I don’t think that a ban of WeChat or TikTok should ever be taken off the table,” he told the committee.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that you would willingly remove that leverage that you have over a tech company.”
Ryan said there would be a “huge cost” for Chinese-Australian if the app was banned but the blame would ultimately lie with the CCP.
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