Disinformation saturates the widely used social media platform WeChat and poses a growing threat to Chinese-American voters in November’s midterm elections, a new report said.
Hundreds of articles promoting right-wing disinformation, or spreading misleading information with intent to harm, have penetrated the Chinese diaspora, according to the study released Wednesday (Sept. 28) by the nonprofit Chinese Civil Rights Organization for Affirmative Action (CAA). .
One of the most popular stories to emerge is that “election fraud is common and threatens the very foundation of our democracy,” the report said.
“We’re just so concerned,” Jinxia Niu, program manager of CAA’s Chinese digital engagement initiative, told NBC News. “The entire space has been dominated by this right-wing disinformation and armed for their own political agenda.”
In the past five months, researchers found 320 articles that they categorized as “major” misinformation, defined as more than 5,000 views on WeChat, or spread to other platforms, including Twitter, YouTube and other Chinese websites. It’s no small matter, Niu noted, given that an estimated 60% of the Chinese-American community is actively using WeChat.
Niu said the topics at the heart of disinformation are diverse, from community safety to social justice and abortion. But a significant part can be linked to the popular idea of an eroding democracy, which is the fault of President Joe Biden and the Democrats. For example, former President Donald Trump’s repeated accusations of electoral fraud have been popularly taken up by his supporters through the app, the investigation said.
In recent months, the story has been revived by the searches of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Flordia. Many supporters have nicknamed him “Chuan Bao川宝” (Trump baby), echoing the way fans refer to their celebrity idols. And every Trump-approved candidate is similarly considered a victim of voter fraud, the report said.
“The main false stories surrounding the FBI search are: that it is a political persecution by the Democratic Party, that it is a Democratic Party conspiracy to manipulate the midterm elections, and that the goal of the Democrats is to prevent that Trump is running in the 2024 election,” researchers wrote.
Another widespread story is that changes to Title IX proposed by the Biden administration — which seek in part to extend the prohibition of gender discrimination to sexual orientation and gender identity, protect transgender students — would usurp parental authority and children encourage them to change their gender. Another, related to reproductive rights, perpetuates the idea that the Democratic Party encourages abortion to lower the country’s fertility rate.
Niu said those behind the disinformation generally fall into two categories. The first includes people with a religious or political agenda. Many of these groups are motivated to spread anti-Chinese Communist Party rhetoric because of their bad reputation with the Chinese government, Niu said. And this often leads to pro-Trump views. The second disinformation camp includes those who see financial opportunities, Niu added. Energizing the public with incendiary stories can help them attract more donations and ad revenue, she said.
“These people, I’d say, especially on YouTube and WeChat, they’re just running for profit,” Niu said, comparing them to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. “There is a very good description. It’s been called the ‘gold rush of disinformation-disinformation’.”
Rachel Kuo, media studies and social movement scientist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said WeChat enables disinformation in part because of the way users can form large, closed groups and also post information without being monitored or detained. become. responsible. The Chinese government’s censorship, the report’s researchers wrote, also makes it more difficult to parse accurate information.
The lack of language access for Chinese Americans also makes them more vulnerable to misinformation on WeChat, Kuo said. The mainstream media in the US does not translate the stories enough for a Chinese audience. But on the other hand, WeChat allows users to communicate, read and respond in their native language and creates an informal space for the dissemination of information.
“The way the app is built also facilitates a certain sense of intimacy and trust,” said Kuo. “These intimacies of information can also foster more trust than even information in the language that comes from an institution. People trust when their friends tell them something.”
But WeChat itself isn’t entirely to blame, Kuo said, and to dismantle many of these stories you need to examine the cultural and historical experiences that led to the political ideologies.
Niu similarly said that many of the groups behind the disinformation are able to exploit cultural traumas, some of which are related to the Cultural Revolution, a socio-political movement led by Mao Zedong that began in 1966 to destroy the communist regime. ideology across China. All facets of individualism and capitalism, including independent thinking, were purified.
The uprising was often violent, and while statistics vary, some scholars estimate that there were about 34,000 violent revolutionary episodes within the first three years, and 1.6 million people died.
“The Cultural Revolution is communism, after all. And these things for them are on the far left and it’s absolutely wrong because they suffered under it,” Niu said. “Racial problems for them in particular are easy to relate to the trauma they have had in China.”
Niu said misunderstandings about American history and racial dynamics have led people to misinterpret protests, such as those led by the Black Lives Matter movement, or discussions of critical race theory as aspects of the revolution that many Chinese families had survived. But given the different sociopolitical environments and histories, the experiences many Chinese immigrants had in their home countries cannot be applied to the US, Niu said. And it’s a message that, she said, her organization is trying to get across to the community.
“Especially in the Chinese community, we’ve come back to talk to people about the civil rights movement in the ’60s, that today’s Chinese as a minority also benefit from the entire history that black Americans fought for all people of color,” Niu said. . “There is a lack of education.”
Others, particularly wealthier, higher-educated immigrants, find these right-wing narratives appealing to maintain power, Kuo added.
“They have a sense of exclusion in their lives, who say, ‘I had access, I want to protect that and remember that,'” she said.
She emphasized that while elections often introduce a sense of urgency around disinformation, solutions are often long-term and involve recognizing the heterogeneity of the Sino-American community and the diverse needs within it.
“If we look at a lot of stories, there are ways that people’s experiences of racialized immigration, exclusion, the inability to access social security is like moving people into certain beliefs, like pro-gun, pro-police, or distrust institutions in different ways,” she said.