Truth Tracker: Are political posts on WeChat in violation of Canada's election laws?
TORONTO – Chinese social media giant WeChat says it does not accept or sell political advertisements on its platform after posts mimicking paid ads appeared in Canadian user’s timelines.
CTV News obtained screenshots of what appear to be two political ads pushed to users on the social media app, both discussing the Liberal gun reform platform.
One of the posts, detailing the Liberals’ promise to ban all military-style assault rifles, clearly notes that the ad is authorized by the official agent for Jean Yip, a Liberal candidate in Toronto’s Scarborough Agincourt riding.
Yip’s campaign manager confirmed that they were responsible for sharing the gun reform ad on WeChat with an important caveat -- the ad was not paid for.
“50 per cent of our constituents use this platform as a form of communication,” Elizabeth Betowski, Yip’s campaign manager, told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.
“This wasn’t a paid advertisement, but it was posted to several groups."
Changes to election advertising rules passed under Bill C-76 requires social media platforms to create a registry of all digital ads published and paid for by third parties and political parties, including ads paid for by nominated and prospective candidates.
This requirement applies to any English-language platform that has at least three million unique visitors, or 100,000 unique visitors if the site’s content is a language other than English or French.
WeChat -- used by more than one billion Chinese-speaking users around the world and an estimated one million Canadians -- has not set up one of these registries.
CTVNews.ca contacted WeChat’s parent company Tencent Monday for information about its ad policy and whether or not it planned to set up a digital ad registry.
In a statement issued Wednesday, a Tencent spokesperson said WeChat does not accept or sell political ads on its platform, including paid advertising about political parties, representatives or candidates, or sponsored content intended to reach and influence voters.
“WeChat is committed to providing a secure and open platform for users to stay connected and share information and ideas, some of which may take the form of opinions that WeChat does not endorse,” read the emailed statement.
“We have seen recent posts which discuss political topics in Canada, but can confirm that these are not advertisements placed on WeChat.”
However, inan emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier said that the agency has been monitoring activity on WeChat and has seen paid election ads running on the app.
“While I can confirm that we have seen paid political ads on that platform, we are not monitoring or checking websites for compliance with the new online registry requirements,” Gauthier said in an email.
Elections Canada does not monitor or check websites for compliance with election laws.
Instead, potential violations would be evaluated by the elections commissioner following a formal complaint.
“Complaints related to the online ad registry can be sent to the Commissioner of Canada Elections, a separate agency from Elections Canada. It is the Commissioner's mandate to determine appropriate investigative or enforcement actions,” explained Gauthier.
But concerns about WeChat stem far beyond its lack of ad registry, even by those who use the app for campaign purposes.
Yip’s campaign manager admits that while the platform is pivotal in reaching constituents, issues of potential misinformation and government censorship make information on the app difficult to disseminate.
“WeChat is outside the reach of everybody in Canada, it carries a lot of misinformation that we are concerned about,” Betowski said.
“Even if there is discussion in a group about politics the posts are sometimes taken down. You have to proceed very cautiously to debunk things. It’s a very challenging platform.”
Because the app operates under Chinese censorship rules, news articles, user posts and images are often subject to censorship or removal.
“Many of those messages are not really like our own social media applications here in the English speaking world [where] you are free to discuss whatever you want,” Fenella Sung, a member of Canadian group Friends of Hong Kong, explained in conversation with Kevin Newman on the Attention Control podcast earlier this month.
“The information people receive on WeChat or Chinese-developed social media is very limited and very filtered. And only those government approved messages will be able to get through.”
The app has also gained a reputation for being a hotbed for disinformation, with at least one study highlighting the problem this creates for the immigrant population.
“The abundance of revenue-driven content published, coupled with partisan forces, makes WeChat especially vulnerable to political misinformation,” read a report focused on WeChat’s effect on Chinese immigrants in the U.S. published in 2018 by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Here in Canada, Betowski says more needs to be done to regulate how political content on WeChat is monitored and enforced.
“In the future this has to be addressed… the same way we treat Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter,” she said.
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