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WeChat and Information Cascades

https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/wechat-misinformation-china.php

This article analyzes the popular Chinese social media app, WeChat, and how its features easily allow false information to spread across networks. In fact, the application was the to-go place for viral pro-Trump news among first generation Chinese immigrants in the US. According to the article, WeChat is a platform much like any social media site that supports one-on-one and small group interactions, and facilitates the spreading of viral news. The application has millions of official accounts and individual users. However, unlike most social media platforms, things shared to your friends cannot be seen publicly. This one of many “opaque” features that WeChat has. Others are that official accounts (such as organizations and publications) have complete control over their pages and no one can reply to their posts. Even comments are hand picked to be displayed at the discretion of the account holder. The app is known for failing to be transparent due to the restrictions and strict government control in China. These features make it very easy for news to be shared only within very tight groups of people such as family, friends and those with similar interests.

In class we learned that information cascades can be caused when people feel socially pressured to imitate others. According to the overwhelming evidence of false information seen throughout WeChat networks, the app’s format makes it very easy for false information to cascade within clusters. Official accounts (OAs), which tend to have a great number of followers who are each parts of their own small groups, can curate and share false news with individuals who then share within many small groups of people with strong ties to each other. If even a few people in a group believe a certain piece of information, it can pressure other group members to believe the same thing, because these people are closely linked and often share the same interests and beliefs. These private clusters all share the same false information, and even if a few people are able to spot that this information is wrong, they cannot comment publicly that it is false. Instead, they can only share the truth within their own small network, but it will be very difficult for the truth to leave the cluster, since, as we learned in lecture, clusters are obstacles to cascades depending on the density of the cluster. In short, while the clusters most likely do not cascade false information to other clusters, OAs have a huge hand in passing down false info to many clusters, and the truth (which will not be shared by the same OAs) is locked within clusters, if it is shared at all. This is how false and unfavorable information about Trump’s opponents flooded WeChat and influenced the 2016 election.

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