China’s WeChat may pose a propaganda challenge for Bhutan

Buddha

HIGHLIGHTS

  • WeChat accounts have been repeatedly hacked affecting thousands of Bhutanese
  • WeChat is hosted in China
  • A recent study revealed that China interferes with foreign WeChat accounts too

BEIJING: Border incursion is not the only Chinese challenge for Bhutan. The other one is the widespread use of WeChat, the China-based instant messaging platform, which poses the risk of being used as a channel to disseminate propaganda, informed sources said. It is already being used for spreading pornography, and there have been cases of its use for financial manipulation, they said.

WeChat accounts have been repeatedly hacked affecting thousands of Bhutanese over the past several months. This fact is reflected in an alert issued by Bhutan’s Ministry of Information after the recent border standoff, as well as reports in state-owned media.

“WeChat is hosted in China and they have totally different sets of cyber law. So we don’t have much control over it,” Pema Dhendup, an officer with the Bhutan Computer Incident Report Team (BtCIRT), was quoted saying by BBS, the state-owned broadcaster on Wednesday.

The BBS report quoted a user saying that his WeChat account was sending out a lot of messages and “all messages were obscene videos and pictures”.

Unlike India where WhatsApp is used extensively, it is WeChat which dominates instant messaging and video transfer market in Bhutan.

“I am afraid hackers can use thousands of WeChat accounts to send out political messages. It is widely used even in rural areas of Bhutan, and I won’t be surprised if soldiers are also using them,” a US-based Bhutanese told TNN while requesting anonymity. He said at least one-third of Bhutanese adults use WeChat in their mobile phones because the Internet is widely available in the country.

In a recent study, University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that Chinese government censors were interfering in WeChat accounts not just within China but also in foreign locations including the United States. All WeChat messages pass through servers based in China, and this makes it possible for sensors to interfere, the study said.

The BtCIRT, which is run by the country’s ministry of information and communication, said on June 22, “We have learned from social media and other sources that there are many instances of WeChat accounts being compromised and used for distributing obscene contents”. But BtCIRT clarified that it has not come across any specific case of compromised WeChat accounts.

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