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We Should Chat: How online disinformation impacts the democratic participation of first-generation Chinese-Americans

“George Soros backed the violence in Charlottesville.” “Liberal media threatens to violently destroy Mount Rushmore.” You have probably seen many sensationalist headlines and bogus claims like these propagated by the likes of Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network. But you might be surprised to learn that neither of the two aforementioned headlines came from Fox News, nor did they go viral on traditional right-wing platforms or even Facebook. Instead, they originated from WeChat.

WeChat is the social media platform of choice for much of the Chinese diaspora in the United States. It allows its 1.2 billion users to send messages, connect with friends, and maintain communities. However, this seemingly innocuous platform hides a dark underbelly of rampant disinformation.

In the United States, older, first-generation Chinese immigrants are more inclined to view articles and messages propagated through WeChat. This tendency can be attributed to the fact that they not only feel more comfortable consuming media in their native languages, but also because they trust the opinions and information circulated by members of their own community. As a result, they leave themselves vulnerable to the spread of disinformation, which has often been crafted to cater specifically to the cultural beliefs and values of the Asian-American community. False content can reinforce racial biases and sow distrust in the political process, leaving immigrants who are already entrenched in their ethnic enclaves feeling even more isolated from mainstream society and less inclined to participate in US politics at all.

While the Chinese-American population is undoubtedly diverse, many have united against one common enemy: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In response, Chinese dissidents online have crafted the narrative that Trump alone can stop China. Wang Dinggang, an anti-CCP internet provocateur, spread an unsubstantiated rumor in September 2020 that characterized Hunter Biden as a child abuser and human trafficker to paint his father, then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, in a negative light. When Chinese virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan began claiming that Covid-19 was a bioweapon manufactured and covered up by China, Steve Bannon and an exiled Chinese billionaire gave her a platform that turned her into a household name in many conservative circles. Unfounded allegations like these have appealed not just to Chinese dissidents living in the United States, but also to individuals of many other descents. Any immigrant whose home country has had a contentious history with China or communism is especially susceptible to these misleading claims, which serve to reinforce their existing anti-China biases.

Entire media companies are embracing anti-China rhetoric too. The Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper The Epoch Times backed President Trump in 2016, allying with him on the basis of his anti-China rhetoric in its crusade against the CCP. Their baseless claims started with “Spygate,” which alleged that Obama administration officials spied on and attempted to sabotage Trump’s 2016 campaign. The newspaper’s affiliates have since doubled down on unsubstantiated and even anti-Semitic allegations, such as claiming that elites like Bill Gates “direct” the Covid-19 pandemic and that a “Jewish mob” controls the world. As the organization has embraced dangerous conspiracies and QAnon, its influence has only grown in the online space. New Tang Dynasty Television and China Uncensored, two of its affiliated YouTube channels, have 1.29 million and 1.54 million subscribers respectively, not to mention a litany of other affiliated channels, social media pages, and even radio stations. This publication, once founded to counter propaganda, has morphed into the very concept it sought to destroy.

Some online content preys on ingrained racial prejudices that some Asian-Americans hold by distorting the Black Lives Matter movement and highlighting rare instances of violence during protests. These posts play into the “scarcity mindset” of some Asian immigrants. Those who subscribe to this way of thinking believe that opportunities for underprivileged racial minorities in American society remain limited, which pits Asian-Americans against Black Americans for equality and progress. This inflammatory content has found a receptive audience on WeChat, where users are not afraid to publicize their anti-Black sentiments. For example, when two Chinese men were shot and killed during a robbery attempt in Chicago in March 2020, WeChat users aired their frustrations through egregious anti-Black statements. “Black people’s lives are cheaper than dirt,” one user remarked. “These animals have no sense of limits,” said another.

Disinformation intending to discourage Asian-Americans from participating in US political processes is also commonly propagated. Traditionally, political campaigns tend to focus less attention on Asian voters: The Pew Research Center found that in 2020, only 74 percent of English-speaking Asian voters were contacted by a campaign. When non-English speaking first-generation Asian immigrants were included, that figure dropped to 50 percent, compared to a national average of people contacted by campaigns of 84 percent. As a result, many older immigrants turn to social media, where information is often spread with malicious and deceitful intent, to access the news and form their political opinions. Articles that characterize Joe Biden as a radical socialist while erasing the nuances of his policies resonate strongly amongst first-generation immigrants who have lived under Communist regimes. The day before the 2020 election, a WeChat post stated that the federal government was “preparing to mobilize the National Guard” and “impose a national two-week quarantine” on Election Day. Written in both English and Chinese, this was a clear attempt by right-wing groups to infiltrate Chinese-American circles and decrease their likelihood of voting. When so many of the people reaching out do so with the intent of disseminating disinformation, it is no surprise that many first-generation Asian immigrants are disillusioned by the American political process.

Fortunately, as the Asian-American population grows, there are more opportunities to combat information silos and ideological entrenchment. Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, many young Asian-Americans began to confront their families and debunk the lies circulating online. Second-generation immigrants o en grow up speaking English and act as translators for their parents: They represent the crucial connection between first-generation immigrants, who prefer to stick within their ethnic enclaves, and a majority English-speaking American society. As second-generation immigrants work to initiate open conversations about racism with their parents and relatives, they have found creative means to connect with their families and dismantle biased or misguided perspectives. Through the same social media platforms that spread conspiracy theories, they have been able to reach out to those who believe such conspiracy theories and set essential antiracism discussions in motion.

Others have employed similar methods of working within their own communities to counter general disinformation and conspiracy theories targeting Asian immigrants. For example, progressive Vietnamese-Americans founded Viet Fact Check to refute the online disinformation they encountered within Vietnamese circles. These activists emphasized the need for these efforts to be led by fellow members of the community in order to be trusted. After all, taking refuge within one’s own community is what makes certain Asian-Americans vulnerable to fake news in the first place. Organizations like Viet Fact Check, which only employ community members and stress that the solution must come from within, should work in tandem with national efforts to combat disinformation among Asian immigrants. As second-generation immigrants become more immersed in American politics and find new ways to communicate with their relatives, there is hope that they can reverse the trends of political disillusionment among their family members.

In some parts of the country, Asian-Americans are already flexing their political power. In New Jersey, where 10 percent of the population is Asian, voters rallied to elect Andy Kim in 2018, the state’s first Asian-American congressperson. Most recently, in the 2021 Georgia Senate Run-offs, Asian-Americans living in Gwinnett County played a key role in electing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. As politicians begin to recognize the growing influence of Asian voters, they will likely do a better job of reaching out to these communities as well, further combatting the spread of disinformation. If these efforts continue, the trend of disinformation in Asian-American communities may very well be on its way out.

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