Misinformation takes on new meaning when the government decides what counts as truth

Lynne Peskoe-Yang:

State regulators around the world have responded to the proliferation of online rumors and propaganda on social media sites with a broad variety of actions. Australia, Brazil, and Indonesia have deployed government task forces and investigations, while Belarus, Egypt, Kenya, France, and Cambodia have criminalized specific types of misinformation.

Elsewhere, the conversation is streamlined—and muddied—by more intimate relationships between state governments and social media platforms.

Chinese social media giant WeChat, owned by telecom company Tencent, has been subsidized and controlled by the national government since 2011. Like Facebook, WeChat—which did not respond to a request for comment on this story—has become a primary news source for many of its more than 1 billion active users, and the service is similarly plagued by accusations that it encourages the spread of sensationalist falsehoods.

In June, WeChat launched an in-app feature that users can search to check whether recent news stories have been debunked by WeChat’s own fact-checkers or volunteers. It also added a clever “Top Ten Rumors” page that lists fake news articles currently tearing through the messenger service.

Superficially, WeChat’s debunking program appears apolitical. Matthew Brennan, an expert on the Chinese social media landscape, points out that the stories visible under “Top Ten Rumors,” for example, almost exclusively cover consumer education topics such as health and safety, product recalls, and scams. “Some of the rumors are a bit silly,” he said, but overall the feature “provides a useful service” to people interested in the validity of the claims.