How Chinese-language media in U.S. are debunking WeChat coronavirus misinformation

The coronavirus has offered ample fodder for WeChat stories that stoke fear among Chinese American immigrants, many of whom rely on the app for information.

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By Chris Fuchs

The warning on Chinese-language social media was dire — unless you want the coronavirus, avoid the Gold City Supermarket in Flushing in the New York borough of Queens.

According to the post, in late February, a cashier with a cough called out from work shortly after her husband returned to America, prompting management to require all employees to wear masks.

The report turned out to be false, one in a string of fake news stories shared widely on WeChat, a platform popular with Chinese-language speakers, many of them from mainland China.

It was debunked after Chinese-language media in New York — home to the largest Chinese population of any city outside Asia — covered a news conference held by elected officials, community leaders and a supermarket representative who set the record straight.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the country, Chinese-language media outlets in the U.S. have their work cut out for them.

They're not only busy reporting the news, but also battling a rumor mill on Chinese-language social media that has increasingly made it difficult to discern fact from fiction and is causing panic within the community.

"We now have between five and six pages in our newspaper dedicated to covering coronavirus stories since late last year," Joe Wei, deputy managing editor of the World Journal, a U.S.-based Chinese-language newspaper founded in 1976, told NBC Asian American in an interview in Mandarin.

WeChat, which was released in 2011 by the Chinese internet company Tencent, is a social media app that helps forge connections among groups of people with similar interests, from consumerism to politics.

Just like Facebook and Twitter, it also can feature content that has been distorted or exaggerated or is just plain false.

COVID-19 has offered ample fodder for WeChat stories that stoke fear among Chinese American immigrants, many of whom rely on the app as an indispensable part of their lives.

One place where this often festers is in private groups. WeChat allows its more than 1 billion monthly active users to create group chats of up to 500 members. Users can belong to multiple groups, in which they are free to share articles and start discussions.

Those include overhyped and unverified messages.

In one, a user says an epidemic has erupted in America and describes a "dog-eat-dog phenomenon" that has already spread to every state. The post says the user is "burning up" his green card and waiting to "swim back" to China while urging fellow Chinese not to come to the U.S. at all.

In another, someone claiming to be an overseas university student from China studying in New York writes about testing positive for COVID-19 in the Big Apple. The post mentions specific places he visited, including in Flushing, and says he sent out the message to his WeChat group at his family doctor's urging to avoid community spread of the coronavirus.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

While not all WeChat posts are groundless — those from reliable media outlets also appear on the platform — the lack of veracity in what's being published through official accounts and in private groups worries many in the Chinese American community.

Exacerbating the concern, Wei said, is that most Chinese-language speakers today get their news from WeChat.

Unlike older generations of Chinese-speaking immigrants, newer arrivals tend not to directly seek out well-established outlets like the World Journal and Sing Tao Daily, which follow story-vetting procedures similar to those in mainstream American media.

"I miss the David Brinkley days and the Walter Cronkite days where you can trust that they have done their homework," said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership and Business Improvement District.

In the case of the Gold City Supermarket, the World Journal put coronavirus rumors to rest by citing City Council member Peter Koo, who represents Flushing. At a news conference, Koo said he had confirmed with the city Health Department that no one in New York at that time in February had been infected.

Sing Tao Daily and other outlets, including the Chinese-language television network SinoVision, carried similar news reports.

Wei said the source who spread the phony story may have been a competitor of the supermarket looking for an edge.

"But there's no way to trace back who manufactured this," he added.

The fake WeChat post apparently hurt Gold City's business, which dropped by 60 percent after the rumor circulated on Chinese-language social media, according to the World Journal.

That bogus news story would hardly be the last to hit WeChat. Not long after, a chilling video clip surfaced on the platform just days after New York City reported its first confirmed coronavirus case.

It showed a man, wearing a mask, lying motionless on his back on a sidewalk in Flushing as a crowd, including police officers, gathered around him. The post said the man, of Chinese descent, had previously visited Japan, where more than 600 people had tested positive for COVID-19 by Thursday.

For an already anxious Chinese immigrant community, it seemed that their worst fears had been confirmed — the virus had finally arrived.

"My first thought was that Flushing had a community outbreak," said James Chen, a longtime small business owner in Flushing who runs Blink Marketing.

That, too, turned out to be false.

Wei's newspaper, which maintains a WeChat account, put out a breaking news story on its website, citing local police officials who said the man had become dizzy and fallen to the ground. It emphasized that the case had nothing to do with the coronavirus.

Wei added that the incident might have been a prank, although he couldn't say for sure. Regardless, the seeds of doubt had already been sown.

"In China, the video and post were shared across WeChat, saying that someone had fallen ill and died of the coronavirus in Flushing," Wei said.

Time will tell whether U.S.-based Chinese-language media will be able to rein in the spread of fake news on WeChat.

Wellington Chen urged members of the Chinese American community to turn to reliable sources for their news, including government websites, and not just believe everything that appears on Chinese-language social media.

James Chen said phony stories like the one of the man who collapsed cause irreparable damage, especially to a business community already under strain because of COVID-19.

"It scares more people not to come to Flushing," he said.