Less than a week after Election Day, a spreadsheet titled “Battling Asian American Misinformation” began circulating in progressive Asian American social media circles, primarily among those of Vietnamese and Chinese descent.
The most popular YouTube channels flagged on the spreadsheet accumulated hundreds of thousands of subscribers, in which pundits discussed misleading claims about election fraud, Hunter Biden’s relationship with China (a conspiracy disseminated by pro-Trump figures), and the Chinese Communist Party’s meddling in the presidential election. Below some of these clips, YouTube included a label informing viewers that the Associated Press had called the election for Joe Biden. But beyond that small disclaimer, most channels were still monetized and still easily discoverable. Flagging it to YouTube, as some soon realized, amounted to doing nothing.
The election might be over, but the uphill battle against online misinformation, notably within first-generation immigrant communities, wages on.
According to CNN’s exit polling, Biden won over the majority of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters this presidential election — 61 percent of AAPI voters supported Biden, while 34 percent backed President Donald Trump. But if Democrats want to maintain a sizable lead, especially within specific ethnic groups where Democratic support has waned, they must address the growing issue of native-language misinformation, according to grassroots organizers and community activists.
Because upon disaggregating voter data — something few non-Asian polling organizations and publications tend to do — the political tendencies of this demographic are more complex and less predictable than meets the eye. A quarter of AAPI voters identify as independent, and as more people become naturalized citizens each cycle, Democrats and Republicans have a fresh slate of voters they’re able to court.
Data from the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey showed that out of the six ethnic groups surveyed, Vietnamese Americans were the only ones to express more support for Trump (48 percent) than Biden (36 percent). When factoring in surveys that extend back to 2012, however, data suggests that Republican margins, while still in the minority, are increasing. While some Asian experts thought AAPI voters might be turned off by Trump’s harsh xenophobic language (which fed into anti-Asian sentiments), surveys suggest that a not-insignificant minority of the electorate are not just tolerating it but have bought into the rhetoric, in addition to the rampant conspiracy theories.
Progressive Asian American organizers say online misinformation, specifically regarding the Democrats and the president-elect, played a role in exposing Asian American voters to more radical right-wing views since 2016. First-generation immigrants who have a contentious history with China and communist governments — such as those from Cambodia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Laos — are more susceptible to the false claims Trump has made about China and its supposed impact on the election and the Democratic Party’s “socialist” tendencies.
Nonpartisan organizations, like APIAVote, are also concerned about how voters with limited English proficiency are vulnerable to disinformation about the voting process. Some fretted over the reliability of mail-in ballots, voter safety at the polls, and if their ballot would be counted if they voted for certain candidates.
“This election cycle, we were involved with a larger network of community organizations to make sure we fought back on disinformation about the election process,” Christine Chen, executive of APIAVote, told Vox. “It appeared that certain communities were more vulnerable and targeted, with the information translated into their language and posted onto WeChat or Facebook.”
The organization and its community partners don’t expect the torrent of fake news to subside post-election; these campaigns can have a future impact on how Asian Americans participate and vote in upcoming elections, including the Georgia Senate runoff elections, which could determine whether Biden will be able to push through his agenda.
Misinformation campaigns can be hard to track, due to the language and platform diversity of the AAPI community
The AAPI community is the fastest-growing electorate in the US, according to the Pew Research Center, growing from 4.6 million in 2000 to 11.1 million in 2020. Yet the categorization of “Asian American and Pacific Islander” is broad and vague, and rarely used as a self-identifier. There is little to no political solidarity among most of these voters, especially first-generation immigrants, who hail from different cultural, economic, and religious backgrounds with varying political histories and sensitivities. To put it simply, the Asian American electorate is overwhelmingly diverse.
Different ethnic groups communicate and receive news on different chat and social media platforms beyond the tech behemoths of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, popular among English-language voters. Since the AAPI umbrella represents voters from more than 30 different ethnic groups and languages, misinformation campaigns within these communities are challenging to track.
For example, Chinese Americans who hail from mainland China tend to use WeChat, while those from Taiwan and Hong Kong use Line and WhatsApp, respectively. Korean Americans have KakaoTalk, Vietnamese Americans mostly rely on Facebook, and many Indian Americans use WhatsApp. Meanwhile, many immigrants with limited English proficiency naturally gravitate toward native-language media — television, radio, and print media — that is produced in the US or from their home country, which might carry its own individual biases.
“I don’t know if there is a liberal Korean newspaper in America,” said Jeong Park, a reporter who formerly covered the Asian American community for the Orange County Register. In the lead-up to the election, Park noticed that Korea Daily, the largest US newspaper for Korean Americans, began to produce videos that alleged election fraud and corruption within the Biden family, which garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
“Korean newspapers are mostly moderate to conservative and work to amplify the voices of the business class, but I’m pretty alarmed at how those videos have so many views,” he said.
And a lot of Korean Americans also watch videos from Korean conservative YouTubers -- which has also spent some of their time promoting Hunter Biden scandal/conspiracy theory: https://t.co/ze5aRVqGdV— Jeong Park (@JeongPark52) November 5, 2020
The same dynamic exists among Vietnamese US-based media, according to volunteers at Viet Fact Check, a project launched by the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT). “In our own efforts to raise awareness in our community, we’ve been turned down or muzzled by Vietnamese-language press because of the fear of offending advertisers or the readership,” said Nick Nguyen, the group’s research lead. “The same pay-for-eyeballs phenomenon across the internet is also taking place here.”
Consistent among most Asian American organizers who spoke with Vox was the concern with the Epoch Times’s media empire — including affiliates like New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD TV) and China Uncensored, which have 1.29 million and 1.48 million YouTube subscribers, respectively. That’s a conservative estimate of the Epoch Times’s reach; its affiliates have separate YouTube channels and Facebook pages across multiple languages, all with hundreds of thousands of followers or subscribers. These pages employ a “sophisticated translation operation,” one activist described, in disseminating articles and videos on Facebook and YouTube with an anti-China slant.
Since misinformation experts and researchers usually specialize in one language or platform, there is little comprehensive research on how this phenomenon impacts AAPI voters as a whole. Groups like APIAVote, though, are anticipating misinformation will be a recurring tactic in future elections.
“We’re working with community-based organizations that have a presence on each of these platforms,” Chen said. “Based on what we’ve seen in the African American and Latino community, these types of fear-based attacks are also affecting our ethnic communities.”
How overlapping information networks can fuel false narratives
The types of false narratives Asian Americans encounter online are not wholly distinct from misleading English- or Spanish-language media. Some voters are already avid viewers and readers of One America News, Newsmax, or Fox News, and seeing content in their native language may only reaffirm existing beliefs.
“The core of this tactic relies on people’s sense of insecurity and fear by misinterpreting certain policies or outcomes,” said Sunny Shao of AAPI Data, who has done research on social media rhetoric, WeChat, and Chinese American voter behavior. “Sometimes it can be straight-out misinformation, but oftentimes, there’s a cultural twist.”
Inaccurate or false news about the presidential election results generally relies on similar narratives perpetrated on some English-language conservative channels and sites, like Breitbart and the Daily Caller: that voter fraud is a pervasive issue in the US or that Beijing favors Biden. Some content also stokes racial tensions by preying on anti-Black prejudices, in light of images from this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the “scarcity mindset” that some immigrants have. These biased narratives are usually oversimplified and presented without nuance, which make them easily digestible for audiences with limited English and cultural context.
Some unfounded claims, like that of Biden being a radical socialist, aren’t aimed at a specific community, as Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary reported. Yet they find resonance among Latino and Asian immigrants distrustful of communist governments, whose suspicions can lead them down information echo chambers that further solidifies these conspiratorial beliefs.
It's interesting to see the Taiwanese trying to take down 中天 but quoting Breitbart and Bannon and the same time https://t.co/JRgOpO64AU— Jocelyn 羅 (@jocelkx) November 15, 2020
Research shows that people are more likely to trust information that originates from sources they’re familiar with — friends, family, or those within their cultural community on Facebook groups, YouTube channels, or Instagram pages. As a result, peer-to-peer sharing within closed chat groups on platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram are driving the spread. And the misinformation is not just from one source: These information networks can overlap, and first-generation immigrants might be swayed by perceptions of US politics from their home country, according to anecdotes from community members.
For example, analysis of American politics from Taiwan — which has taken a proactive stance against domestic disinformation — has largely been in favor of Trump, said Rath Wang, communications director of Taiwanese Americans for Progress. While the Taiwanese government did not officially endorse any presidential candidate, its media ecosystem is still skewed. Pre-election polls by YouGov found Taiwan to be the only one out of 15 European and Asian states with citizens favoring Trump over Biden.
Several prominent Chinese dissidents have also promoted the message that Republicans and Donald Trump are the only ones who can “stop China” from politically encroaching on Taiwan, Wang added. It doesn’t help that most Americans traditionally lump the Chinese diaspora under the “Chinese American” umbrella, which overlooks the population’s geopolitical complexity. Immigrant voters who still have ties to their home country deeply care about foreign policy, and this generalizing “ignores the community’s political diversity,” Wang said.
A similar development has occurred in Vietnam, whose state media is predominantly pro-Trump. There, the Epoch Times — under the name Dai Ky Nguyen — developed an experimental network of pro-Trump, anti-China pages, which soon became one of the country’s largest Facebook publishers. The New York Times described the operation as “a Vietnamese experiment,” and the Vietnam team was reportedly tapped to build the US arm of the Epoch Times’s operation in 2017. This misinformation network has become “a force in right-wing media,” the New York Times reported, commanding tens of millions of social media followers on Facebook and YouTube spread across dozens of English and foreign-language pages.
“A lot of channels like the Epoch Times are superspreaders of misinformation, and it’s not clear from their Facebook or YouTube presence where they come from,” said Deanna Tran, Viet Fact Check’s operations lead. “It’s shared on multiple platforms at the same time, and then it gets absorbed into our communities and makes it seem like it’s homegrown, when in fact there might be outside influence involved potentially.”
Misinformation can also be community-specific, varying by region or by ethnic enclave. In early November, ProPublica reported that at least two dozen groups on WeChat had spread misinformation about how the federal government was “preparing to mobilize” in the case of riots on Election Day, in an attempt to frighten Chinese voters to stay home. Reuters also reported that several nonpartisan South Asian groups worked together to correct fake news about the voting process on WhatsApp, an unmoderated and decentralized chat service.
“It’s not that we only have a WeChat or a WhatsApp problem; these platforms are accelerants,” said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and co-founder of Asian Americans Against Trump, who is familiar with misinformation on WeChat. “It accelerates a lot of vulnerabilities that Chinese and other Asian immigrants with limited English proficiency have. They live in scarcity, under tremendous social and economic pressure and uncertainty.”
“Meet the community where they’re at”: Organizers demand support from social media platforms and political parties
While the potential for misinformation on these platforms is known, the effort to stanch the spread has primarily fallen to the hands of grassroots organizers from within these ethnic communities. These efforts also vary by ethnic group. Community members are tasked with not just finding and reporting fake news but actively debunking these claims and becoming an accurate, neutral news source — often with little manpower and financial support.
According to Pan, the non-English social media landscape is usually homogeneous, operating as an insular echo chamber where little fact-checking is done. “There’s not the same level of balance, in terms of political balance or racial and ethnic balance,” he said. “It’s a priority of ours to meet the community where they’re at.”
This “data void” is also occurring in the Latino community, as Vox’s Ghaffary has reported: “There are only two major Spanish-language broadcast news networks in the US: Univision and Telemundo. This leaves room for media operations — not just on the internet but also via local radio channels and newspapers — to spread less accurate reporting,” according to a Spanish misinformation researcher.
While accurate and nonpartisan sources of information in Asian languages do exist, they are few and far between, and their online presence can’t compete against viral posts with an inflammatory or biased slant. “The message discipline in conservative media is amazing,” said Nguyen of Viet Fact Check. “Think of the juggernauts we’re facing, and there are no progressive alternative voices in Vietnamese media. For us, we just try to keep a very neutral and fact-based tone.”
But platforms too have a responsibility to mitigate the spread of non-English misinformation, Nguyen added, as this phenomenon is no longer unique to the English-speaking population. While Facebook announced it will take measures to stem election misinformation related to the vote count, similar content remains accessible on YouTube and is gaining traction. One researcher told Recode that YouTube doesn’t appear to actively push such content, which is “somewhat hard to find,” but it’s possible the platform’s moderation focus is less strict surrounding foreign-language misinformation on US elections.
Viet Fact Check, a volunteer-run group, has tried to register as an independent fact-checker on Facebook, but faced obstacles to verification. “I’m comfortable saying we are the No. 1 neutral-to-progressive fact-checking Vietnamese source in the US,” Nguyen said. “And while Facebook has tried to mobilize third-party groups to fact-check, we’re not technically a media organization. We’re all volunteers.”
This grassroots work isn’t sufficient, nor is it sustainable. Organizers say Democrats need to commit to outreach and budget in translation services to reach these historically overlooked communities. “The Democratic Party needs to recognize that there are certain political sensitivities within the Asian American umbrella,” said Wang of Taiwanese Americans for Progress. “For Taiwanese Americans, it’s crucial that candidates express their backing for Taiwan. … Since Trump has been so vocal about China, many believe that he will take action to support Taiwan.”
It’s also a matter of trust. About half of AAPI voters in the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey have not been contacted by a major party, a huge missed opportunity, according to Shao, the researcher from AAPI Data. Pockets of Asian American voters live in battleground states and can be a deciding factor in congressional or state legislature races.
There are both cultural and language barriers that prevent people from breaking through the misinformation trap. For example, many first-generation immigrants lack the civic knowledge about how elections work, thus relying on community-driven translated content that might not always be true. A direct approach from political parties and candidates, then, could make a difference in how these voters perceive certain policies and elections. On-the-ground regional or state-level work is required to disaggregate and disentangle the myth of the “AAPI voter” and their varying interests.
“We ran Asian-language ads and direct mail in four to five different swing states against vulnerable Republicans,” said Pan, of Asian Americans Against Trump. “The parties and candidates weren’t doing it themselves, and it was too frustrating to sit and watch our communities go the wrong way.”
In late October, Bloomberg reported that Asian American voters could “play a decisive role” in turning Georgia blue, with Indian Americans as the state’s largest Asian ethnic group. With Georgia’s upcoming Senate runoff race in January, the AAPI vote is similarly coveted. These voters could be crucial in swaying elections in races that have thin margins, Pan added, and politicians — at the regional, state, and national levels — should be focused on investing and distributing more resources.
“We’ve realized that if we can’t always rely on regulatory protections from Facebook or backing from a national party,” Pan said. “We have to organize.”