Tencent’s WeChat has grown so quickly over the last two years that it was almost inevitable that the popular mobile messaging service would come under fire from China’s state-run media or Beijing regulators. The service briefly clashed with the telecoms regulator last year during a high-profile spat with leading telco China Mobile, and now WeChat is coming under fire from leading broadcaster CCTV for becoming a hotbed for rumor mongering and fraudulent advertisements.
Many longtime China tech watchers may be getting a sense of deja vu from this latest attack, since it looks similar to several past cases. Leading search engine Baidu came under high-profile attack at one point for hosting fraudulent ads, and leading microblogging site Weibo was blasted a couple of years ago as a similar hotbed for rumor mongering. Both Baidu and Weibo conducted major clean-ups after each attack, which ultimately improved not only their relationships with Beijing but also boosted the credibility of their services.
Now it looks like WeChat may be due for a similar clean-up, following the latest critical report from CCTV. The report specifically focused on the public accounts section of WeChat. Such accounts can be followed by any user of the service, which otherwise is more of a one-to-one communication tool like Skype or WhatsApp. CCTV spotlighted WeChat on one of its popular current affairs shows, saying public accounts have become a hotbed for both rumor mongering and the posting of fraudulent advertisements.
The report highlighted one particular case where an inaccurate article about the dangers of microwave ovens got widely spread across WeChat. Among other things, the report claimed that microwave ovens emitted deadly radiation that could cause cancer, and that microwave ovens caused food to lose their nutrition.
Frankly speaking, I’m a bit surprised that this kind of attack didn’t happen sooner since WeChat has easily surpassed Weibo to become the most popular social networking service (SNS) among Chinese over the last 2 years. In one of the earlier attacks, Weibo was accused by Beijing of spreading false rumors after one particular post claimed that tanks were moving into Beijing during a tense political time.
Around that time, Weibo was ordered by Beijing to require all of its users to register with their real names, even though it never really strictly enforced that policy. Instead, it implemented a number of other less drastic steps to improve the reliability of posts on the service, and it also monitors posts more closely and quickly deletes anything too controversial.
In the meantime, Beijing took its own steps to address the rumor mongering issue, including implementation of a law that punishes people with potential jail time if they deliberately spread incorrect information to large audiences. If past experience is any indicator, Tencent is likely to take the CCTV criticism very seriously and quickly move to clean up WeChat. It already started to take such action back in March when it reportedly removed about 30 public WeChat accounts that violated company policy.
I expect we’ll see Tencent step up its policing of WeChat in the months ahead, with a special focus on public accounts. Measures could include ones similar to those that Weibo took, such as requiring real-name verification for public accounts, giving credibility ratings to such accounts, and more active policing. Such actions could slow some of Tencent’s plans to monetize WeChat, since public accounts were seen as one segment with some of the best money-making potential.
Doug Young lives in Shanghai and writes opinion pieces about tech investment in China for Techonomy and at www.youngchinabiz.com. He is the author of a new book about the media in China, “The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.”