Israel-Hamas war: Chinese social media fights the same disinformation as the West

A man checks his phone on a subway train in Shanghai, China, June 3, 2023
opinion

A man checks his phone on a subway train in Shanghai, China, June 3, 2023. REUTERS/Aly Song

Disinformation about the Israel-Hamas conflict has inundated Chinese-language social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin

Wei Xing is the founder of ChinaFactCheck.com

Chinese-language social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat, Douyin have been flooded with misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war. Many old videos or videos that take place elsewhere have been taken out of context and mischaracterised as relevant to the current conflict.

Most of this content is from platforms such as X (formerly Twitter), Telegram, and TikTok, translated into Chinese for distribution. Some examples include handcuffed Karabakh ex-leaders regarded as Israeli generals; a red sky filled with smoke and fireworks in Algeria was described as Gaza, and clips from the video game Arma 3 have been presented as footage of the war.

As China's international influence grows and it interacts more frequently - though not always smoothly - with the world, Chinese audiences are interested in global news. But traditional channels can't meet this huge demand for news about the outside world.

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China does not have many trusted media outlets. Chinese media’s capability to cover on-the-ground international news is weak, due to editorial constraints, lack of experience and stretched budgets.

At the same time, internet regulation makes it difficult for readers to access foreign websites. Language is another obstacle. Only a few people are fluent in reading news in foreign languages.

As a result, many people turn to and rely on social networks to get their international news. Influential social media accounts could determine what information audiences are exposed to.

Over the years, Weibo and other platforms have generated several non-media accounts that specialize in international news and have a large following.

However, some of these accounts lack a fact-checking process, or are trying to gain more traffic and money, resulting in false or misleading information being posted. Algorithms have made the situation even worse.

A study of 10 Chinese cities found that 99.82% of respondents got their news on their smartphones. About 75% listed WeChat groups as their news source; 20% listed Weibo. That survey was conducted four years ago, and the percentage is only going up now.

In China, government and state media currently dominate or even monopolize the campaign against rumors.

There are very few independent, third-party fact-checking organizations which operate in accordance with international codes. They face high risks if covering topics that are considered sensitive.

Chinese social media platforms choose to work with government agencies and state media first, and it is difficult for third-party fact-checkers to get their work promoted. This means the limited amount of fact-checking content is drowned in the flood of information, making it difficult to reach audiences.

For China's third-party fact-checking organizations, getting funds from social media platforms like their foreign colleagues is near impossible. It is also not easy for them to register as non-profits. Therefore, it is a big challenge to survive and be sustainable.

In August, Weibo introduced a feature like X's Community Notes. The feature allows government and media accounts to flag certain content as rumors and approved users to add information or respond to content related to them. By the end of September, Weibo claimed to have granted the feature’s access to more than 1.5 million approved users.

The Israel-Hamas war may be the first time this feature has been tested on a large scale. Indeed, the feature has correctly added contexts to many popular posts. For example, under a post claiming that video shows Egyptians are delivering humanitarian aid of food and water carried on their backs from Egypt to Gaza, a note pointed out that the video was first posted on Tik Tok early September, before the deadly Hamas attack on Israel.

However, some inaccurate notes related to the war have been approved. For example, a note about a video claiming that Israeli children were being held hostage in cages by Hamas quoted US fact-checking site Snopes, but incorrectly wrote that Snopes’s investigation concluded the video actually shows Israel military imprisoning Palestinian children in cages. In fact, Snopes did not say that. The note remains with the original post and has generated a substantial amount of hate speech.

Weibo say they manually review all notes, but the review criteria lacks transparency, and the challenge of ensuring the objectivity of the notes themselves remains enormous on such a polarizing topic.


Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Tags

  • Disinformation and misinformation
  • Content moderation
  • Tech regulation
  • Social media



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