For citizens living in China, WeChat is as vital as smartphones are to the West. It is one of the few apps allowed in a country that monitors communication, and it permits users to do a variety of things: connect to old friends, pay bills, post photos, buy things, and, most importantly for China, get their news. It’s popular among the Chinese diaspora outside of China as well. Millions of Chinese immigrants living here in the U.S. use it as their primary means to get news. The problem is that WeChat is also a conduit for Chinese propaganda. Data is collected and monitored by Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings, a technology firm that answers to Beijing.
Right-wing conspiracies and Chinese propaganda tend to align, since they both have the goal of poisoning minds in democratic nations. So WeChat is perfect for spreading right-wing “fake news” in this country and around the globe. I recently read a post on the app explaining that California Democrats made it legal to shoplift up to $950 in goods under Proposition 47. Yes, it was complete and utter nonsense, but that’s the kind of disinformation that was being disseminated through Chinese immigrant communities across the U.S.
Although conservatives claim to hate what China stands for, it hasn’t stopped dozens of conservative groups from helping them spread disinformation on the app, such as claiming Biden was “preparing to mobilize” the National Guard on Election Day. Many Asian Americans were still favoring Democratic candidates in the midterms, so the goal was to frighten Chinese Americans into staying home with the threat of “impending violence” and a “two-week quarantine.” Meanwhile, former Trump White House strategist and all-around bad guy Steve Bannon had partnered with exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui to plant a fake story about Hunter Biden in China. All of these stories went viral.
Here in Florida, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Colombian, Nicaraguan, Dominican, and Venezuelan immigrants have been inundated with ridiculous stories on both social media apps and Spanish-language radio stations. They were told that George Soros is directing a “deep state'' global conspiracy network and that Dominion Voting machines were being funded by Chinese communists.
Veteran Latino Democratic strategist Evelyn Pérez-Verdia noticed this past summer that even news clips from new Spanish-language sites, like Noticias 24, PanAm Post, and the YouTube-based Informativo G24 website, interspersed right-wing conspiracy theories in-between updates on the pandemic. “I’ve never seen this level of disinformation, conspiracy theories and lies,” Pérez-Verdia told Politico. “It looks as if it has to be coordinated.”
Immigrants who don’t follow mainstream media can be more susceptible to disinformation about politics in the U.S. Peddlers of disinformation know how to utilize home country biases on sensitive topics like China’s cultural revolution or Latin America’s socialist dictatorships to drive fear that it may come to America.
Data from a Nielsen report published last year indicated that immigrants are more likely to consume and share fake news as compared to the rest of the population. CEO of Voto Latino María Teresa Kumar says, “Democrats don’t understand how deep it is.”
“Disinformation is really hard to track because it isn’t just contained in the continental U.S. but being lobbied by friends and family from, let’s say, Colombia,” Kumar continued.
The GOP has historically been virulently anti-immigrant, as their policies have been notoriously cruel and bigoted, and that goes for legal and illegal immigration. Yet instead of moderating their policies, they’ve decided to take on a different strategy: overwhelm these communities with false information. It’s a strategy that has worked in rural America for two decades. Right-wing extremists such as Steve Bannon, Glenn Beck, and Dan Bongino have built a powerful media empire based on disseminating false information that gins up hatred and fear. It has oftentimes led to violence. Just two days before a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, Beck said on his broadcast:
“It is time to fight. It is time to rip and claw and rake. It is time to go to war, as the left went to war four years ago.”
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Disinformation is ridiculously hard to combat. If a lie is told enough times, people believe it. This is based on social science studies that have shown that the more a person hears something or is exposed to something, the more true it sounds.
Emily Dreyfuss works with the Harvard Shorenstein Center's Media Manipulation Casebook: “It's kind of a glitch in the human brain. It has evolutionarily served us before. But in a disinformation ecosystem, it really is dangerous. And what these hashtags do, what viral slogans and all of these—even memes—what they do is they take really complicated, nuanced issues that people can debate about, that people feel passionate about, and they distill them down to this really simple piece of information that becomes unstoppable in some ways.”
Ideally, the government and the tech industry should be investing in tools that identify fake news, reduce financial incentives for those who profit from disinformation, and improve online accountability. The problem is that both entities have other interests. Our government is filled with people who identify as Republicans, and Republican leadership relies on misinformation to control their supporters and win elections.
The tech industry does not see monitoring fake information as profitable, often only making token gestures. When they do hire moderators, they are drastically underpaid and understaffed. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who led the House antitrust subcommittee investigation of several tech giants, said social media business models create powerful incentives for companies to ignore the danger.
When damage is done, the tech companies will then claim “free speech” to absolve themselves of the problem:
“The act of posting is a First Amendment exercise, but the social media platform tools of how to disseminate the information is a business decision,” Cicilline explained. “They’re taking the content of another person and, based on a business decision, using their algorithms to promote it and ensure maximum engagement. That is not a First Amendment right that is protected.”
There are websites dedicated to fighting disinformation online, such as Snopes, Factcheck.org, and PolitiFact. Yet immigrant groups don’t typically use these sites, so grassroots organizers in their communities have created their own, such as Asian American Advocacy Fund, VietFactCheck, and Factchequeado.com. A San Francisco-based non-profit has created 首页 - 辟谣吧|海外华人事实核查网 (piyaoba.org) specifically to counter all the right-wing disinformation on WeChat.
All these guys have their work cut out for them as the internet is flooded each day with new conspiracy theories. In addition, fact-checkers have been threatened or attacked by those who market in disinformation.
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It takes lots of time and effort to debunk disinformation, some of which borders on the ridiculous. Thankfully, there is a nonprofit that has taken aim not so much at the disinformation online, but at the pocketbooks of the prominent far-right media conglomerates that fund this disinformation. Former marketer Claire Atkin co-founded Check My Ads, a nonprofit group that aims to defund the sources of disinformation.
“Advertisers industry-wide have said over and over, ‘Do not place our ads on disinformation, hate content, and content that scapegoats minority groups and leads to violence. In the digital advertising world, brand safety is priority No. 1 when you’re running a campaign, so it’s outrageous these ad exchanges will pay $100 million on campaigns and then just ignore the demands of the advertisers.”
Ad exchanges act as a middleman between companies that place the ads and the websites that advertise. The exchanges are normally automated, and not monitored very well. Check My Ads does research and alerts the ad exchanges when content goes on these hate sites. As you can imagine, they are not popular with right-wing media.
This year, they went after their most formidable target of conservative misinformation: Fox News. For months before Jan. 6, Fox News went all in with Trump’s false claims of potential election fraud if he loses, and stoked doubt and fear about the integrity of America’s election system. They deliberately fielded the insurrection attempt. They promoted a debunked conspiracy theory that a software program was being used to alter key votes in swing states. They falsely claimed Democrats were working to “nullify the votes of 71 million Americans.” Fox News even aired segments asserting that thousands of dead people were voting as evidence that the results of the 2020 presidential election were invalid. That simply didn’t happen, except in the Villages.
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Check My Ads is running a campaign directly targeting Fox's website and its popular YouTube channel calling on the public to pressure online ad exchanges to stop doing business with Fox. Talk about misinformation: Tucker Carlson ran a false portrayal of the Capitol rioters in a documentary-style series called "Patriot Purge.” Laura Ingraham took it to an extreme:
She featured a heavily mocked interview with a “disguised poll worker” who made the ludicrous claim that people from a Biden/Harris bus committed voter fraud in broad daylight outside her polling place in Nevada. Her claims were never substantiated or repeated by anyone else at the polling place she claimed to be at, yet this false story was pushed to millions of people:
This is significant because the insurrection at the Capitol didn’t just feature a bunch of Confederate flags: a quick scan of the crowd showed flags of India, South Vietnam, Venezuela, Israel, Cuba, and Taiwan.
In a surprising twist, the Proud Boys said they received most of the funds that covered their medical costs, over 80%, from Chinese American groups. Disinformation caused many of these groups to believe that the Proud Boys were fighting to stop an authoritarian takeover of the United States.
Latino and Asian immigrants are the largest and fastest-growing electorate groups in the U.S., and they are heavily clustered in swing states. It’s no wonder the right-wing spends so much time and effort on distorting their information streams. They know that these groups love democracy because they have seen firsthand when democracy is threatened, so they have latched onto their fear of communism to promote their agenda. Most immigrants from China and Latin America have fled communist regimes and are very sensitive to false attacks by the right-wing that Democrats want to establish a similar regime here.
In South Florida, non-Cuban and non-Puerto Rican Latin Americans shifted the most from Democrats in 2020 to voting for Trump. Not only was their concern for socialism the strongest predictor of a Trump vote, but those who received the majority of their news from Spanish-language radio—which was infested with disinformation—were also most likely to believe it.
Latinos and Asian Americans surged in the elections of 2020 and 2022. Thankfully, the majority of these immigrant groups still went against the Trump GOP. Yet the fact that they are being targeted by conservatives, and that the Republicans have managed to make some headway, is an issue that needs far more attention than it’s been getting. Activists are demanding social media platforms used by immigrant groups offer the same labels identifying misinformation that are available in languages other than English.
Major media outlets are less likely to promote misinformation, although they do engage in false equivalence when they complain about it. That being said, mainstream outlets do not garner much trust in the diaspora communities. The biggest reason is that the mainstream media tends to focus on an “us vs. them” narrative, and there’s no better example of this than when media outlets covered the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings from the perspective of the white perpetrator rather than the Korean and Chinese victims.
Korean news outlets centered on interviewing locals, community leaders, and government entities. Yet mainstream outlets relied heavily on law enforcement statements to guide the narrative, which took the perpetrator’s words at face value. (The Sheriff’s spokesman even downplayed the murders by saying the shooter was just having a “bad day.”) Reuters ran the story with a headline about how the shooter went to church, and CNN interviewed the guy’s grandmother and none of the victims’ families.
The problem is that some of the outlets they turn to are targeted, or in some cases even run by, purveyors of disinformation with the goal of controlling their behavior through fear-mongering. The Biden administration is at least aware of the problem. President Biden ordered the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to help non-English-speaking communities address the risks of disinformation, and has released a “Tactics of Disinformation” online pamphlet in other languages.
Yet more needs to be done. Everyone has a role to play, whether it’s supporting real journalism, reducing financial incentives for fake news, or improving digital literacy with those who fall prey. At the very least, if someone shares a story that is clearly wrong, say so–but in a nice way. (“I was curious about the thing you posted, so I looked it up and here’s what I found...”)
Kion 46 News reported Maria Corina Vegas, an attorney based in Miami, “was recently sent a WhatsApp message from a family member that echoed QAnon-style conspiracy theories about pedophilia and the Democratic party.” She explained she gets tired of pushing back, but feels an obligation to do so. “If you stay silent, you concede.”