Warning WeChat could spread Chinese propaganda during federal election


Security experts warn Beijing could spread propaganda in the lead-up to the federal election through popular social messaging service WeChat, which is facing less government scrutiny than US tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter.

The International Cyber Policy Institute – part of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – has warned WeChat’s 1.5 million monthly Australian users could be exposed to disinformation, censorship and propaganda on the closely regulated Chinese messaging service.

While security analysts are divided about how serious a threat the Chinese Communist Party will pose come May, they point out WeChat is subject to strict controls from Beijing.

Governments in Europe and North America have argued social media platforms must tackle the spread of fake news aimed at disrupting election campaigns, such as the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine the 2016 US presidential election.

“What’s particularly concerning about WeChat is that it is subject to Chinese censorship and control,” ASPI senior cybersecurity analyst Tom Uren said. “It’s not just censorship – sometimes they promote particular issues so it’s a way of controlling public debate.”

“It’s worth opening a discussion with WeChat about how they run their platform in Australia and what they actually do. In an ideal world the government would actually get transparency on how that platform runs in Australia.”

The federal government, via its Australian Electoral Commission, is consulting with Facebook, Google and Twitter ahead of election day to nut out strategies against disinformation. But the commission confirmed they have not spoken with Tencent, WeChat’s father company.

In June last year, an Electoral Integrity Assurance Task Force was set up, involving the Australian Electoral Commission, the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.