Nuclear secrets and deadly coffees: A look at Australian fake news on Chinese social media


Like many people around the world, citizens in China are now getting much of their news from social media instead of traditional news outlets.

Key points:

  • More than 100 Chinese news accounts publish news for people in Australia
  • The articles are often sensationalist and full of misinformation
  • Australian media is being called on to produce more news in Chinese

But the trend runs even stronger among Chinese international students living in Australia, who generally do not turn to or are unable to read local English language news.

For them, WeChat — China’s social media behemoth with over one billion registered users — is the go-to source, and there are more than 100 news accounts on the platform publishing news specifically for Chinese people in Australia.

“Based on research we conducted a few years ago, most Chinese students don’t read English language news, but browsing WeChat is a must-do activity every day,” said Jiang Ying, a senior media lecturer at the University of Adelaide.

While these accounts usually post stories about popular restaurants, discounts, and other lifestyle topics, Dr Jiang said the revenue model meant sensationalism, nationalism, and fake news were also frequently served up.

“The main purpose of these accounts is to generate revenue since the number of views defines their advertising income,” she said.

“Therefore, eye-catching titles, sensational journalism, exaggerated facts, rumours are seen on these accounts.”

Beat-ups from Australian WeChat accounts have covered everything from “secret” nuclear pollution to the return of the White Australia Policy — so what are these accounts, and why are they popular?

‘Breaking! ISIS officially announced their Australia attack!’

One of the most successful WeChat news accounts in Australia is Australian Red Scarf, named after the red scarves worn by Chinese primary school students who join the Young Pioneers, a kid version of Communist Party membership.

Co-founded in April 2016 by former international student Nathan Wu, the account is run by 15 staff members serving around 200,000 subscribers.

Mr Wu told the ABC he did not think his small business produced news, but instead acted more as a distribution platform, sourcing and translating stories from the Australian media.

However, the articles are rarely just straight translations, and are often peppered with opinion, memes, gifs and attention-grabbing headlines.

“Breaking! ISIS officially announced their Australia attack! Many famous locations in Sydney and Melbourne targeted,” said one headline.

That article from 2016 was referring to an announcement made by the Islamic State (IS) terror group, and also promised readers “useful tips for facing terrorist attacks”.

Australian media were told by police at the time that this was IS propaganda, but no comments from police were included in Australian Red Scarf’s article, which was sourced from Chinese news media.

Mr Wu said while his staff no longer used Chinese media as a source, WeChat’s revenue model had made clickbait headlines “pretty common” on the platform.

“If we don’t write that way, nobody is interested in clicking on the story,” he said.

“But if it’s fake news or over sensational news, I think [WeChat accounts] should not do it.”

There are around three million WeChat users in Australia, and the platform operates in the same regulatory environment as other social media platforms.

Dr Jiang said she thought it was time to look at providing relevant regulations for WeChat news accounts.

“The current media policy … in Australia mainly regulates media that are in English, not for free circulation,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said the Government had commissioned an ACCC inquiry into the impact of online platforms on the provision of news.

Australia’s ‘nuclear secrets’ and Starbucks’ fatal coffee

An Australian Red Scarf article published in December 2017 caused a significant amount of concern in the Chinese community, after it reported on an “untold dark secret from 67 years ago”.

The article was about the Maralinga and Emu Fields atomic weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s, and it claimed people in Australia were “living in nuclear pollution” as a result of the tests.

“Not only have the nuclear test areas been polluted, but every city on the Australian east coast is facing a nuclear crisis,” the article said.

It used photos of random children with various health issues, and claimed they were the result of radiation. A photo of the Australian writer Robert Hoge, who was born with a facial tumour, was also used in the article.

WeChat’s own fake news fact-checking platform picked up on the post after it went viral, and pointed out the tests had not been a secret for some decades, and the photos were unrelated — the post was subsequently deleted.

Nathan Wu said the article was “a big mistake”, and the editor responsible for the piece was subsequently fired.

Other Australia-based accounts have also had their content pulled by WeChat’s moderator. One of the most notable examples was from an account named Australian Mirror, which in March sensationally claimed Starbucks coffee caused cancer.

This story — an exaggeration of a California court ruling that said coffee makers would have to put warning labels on their brews — even made it to Chinese state media, which quoted experts to dispel the claims.

Xinhua news agency said the Australian Mirror account was “spreading rumours under the banner of overseas media”, and that the article had “caused some public panic”.

Another account, simply named “Australia” and billing itself as “Australia’s authoritative public platform”, just last week announced that the “White Australia Policy was back!” in the headline of an article about changes to the citizenship application process.

WeChat last month pulled an article from the same account after it claimed “cancer can be completely cured from now on” following a fake discovery by Australian scientists.

Nationalism, and the ongoing political troubles between Australia and China, are also popular topics on WeChat news accounts.

When Qantas listed Taiwan as part of China in June following a threat from Chinese authorities, Australian Red Scarf commented that “China’s sovereignty can’t be challenged”.

The article featured a map of China often used in state media that includes Taiwan and the contested South China Sea as part of China — and under the map, the question “Australia, can you stop now?” was repeated three times.

Last week it published an article critical of the Australian National University’s decision to no longer allow international students to intern with politicians, tying it to Australia’s “groundless fear” of Chinese influence.

Australian Red Scarf also criticised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s comments late last year against Chinese interference in Australian politics.

“Some of these accounts, like [Australian] Red Scarf for example, bring together the worst of both worlds — the dogmatism of Chinese state media and the sensationalism of non-traditional media,” said Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University.

“It’s like fusing the Global Times and Gawker, People’s Daily, and Breitbart.”

Mr Wu said his publication made these sorts of comments “to attract the young audience”.

“We are a private business. Our income source is mainly advertisement … We have no connection with Beijing,” he said.

He said international students were interested in Australian politics, especially policy changes affecting education and immigration.

Chinese audiences ignored by Australian media

Zhengyi Tian, a 25-year-old international student at the University of Melbourne and one of WeChat’s three million Australian users, told the ABC he was a reader of stories on the platform every day.

“You can get a general understanding of some news stories, but the quality and objectivity of the news coverage is not good enough,” he said, adding that he sometimes cross-checked what he read with more reputable sources.

However, Mr Tian said when WeChat accounts cover stories about racial discrimination and violence against Chinese nationals in Australia, they often do a much better job than the mainstream media.

“These reports, which may only be two sentences in mainstream media, will have more details and first-hand interviews in the [WeChat] coverage,” he said.

“The media are all talking about traffic. Chinese residents’ stories may not attract enough traffic by themselves.”

Currently, The Australian, SBS, and the ABC are the only mainstream media organisations producing Australian news in Mandarin, and Dr Carrico said they should engage more with local communities and international students.

“There should be a media watch to monitor these types of [WeChat] accounts and share some of the unfounded misinformation they are spreading,” he said.

The Australian Press Council said in a statement it had for some time been concerned about the impact of technological and other changes faced by the media industry in Australia on journalism, and continues to carefully monitor these changes.

By Danielle Li, Xiaoning Mo, Bang Xiao, and Michael Walsh
ABC News


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