Amidst reports of how the spread of misinformation on Facebook and Twitter contributed to election interference and political violence, U.S. media has paid little attention to how political misinformation has also proliferated in social media sites popular among Asian American users, such as WeChat, WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, and Line. Instead, young progressive Asian Americans have taken up the fight of combating the spread of toxic and false narratives within their communities and families.
English-speaking Asian Americans have a relatively wide array of mainstream and alternative media outlets to choose from. But Asian Americans with limited English proficiency—including the roughly two-thirds of Asian Americans who are first-generation immigrants—have substantially fewer options. As a consequence, many of these Asian Americans turn to ethnic media—including print, broadcast, and digital social media outlets—as their primary source of news, which can expose users to viral misinformation. This phenomenon is especially apparent on WeChat, a Chinese-language social media app.
Nearly one in six Asian Americans say they go on social media sites like WeChat, WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, and Line to discuss politics, granting the sites considerable influence within Asian American communities. But unlike on Facebook and Twitter—which took the unprecedented action of labeling and limiting posts containing misinformation and eventually banned Trump’s Twitter account along with other accounts associated with the far right conspiracy group, QAnon—misinformation goes largely unchallenged on Asian American social media. As a result, they’ve fueled an enthusiastic and increasingly radicalized right-wing Asian American movement, buoyed by rumors and falsehoods.
This problem is especially apparent on WeChat. Among Chinese Americans, WeChat is a popular digital gathering site that attracts over 1.2 billion users a month. For many, the site helps to maintain connections with family and friends living in Asia, as well as to build community in the United States. WeChat users congregate in group chat threads and in-app microblogging spaces (termed “outlets”). Unfortunately, those outlets have also increasingly become a hotbed for rumor and disinformation.
“WeChat is a place where misinformation flows heavily,” says Dr. Janelle Wong, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland. Wong has studied the recent rise of a grassroots conservative Chinese American movement mobilized through WeChat as it’s become a dominant voice in the fight to end affirmative action.
Affirmative action is one of several deeply entrenched topics on WeChat. All are discussed through stories rife with misinformation. Viral posts on WeChat have, for example, falsely suggested that wildfires in Sonoma County were deliberately set by undocumented immigrants, and that Antifa was planning mass riots to instigate a violent civil war to overthrow the U.S. government. The author of a widely-shared story on WeChat about the Black Lives Matter movement wrote that “African Americans are beating, smashing, looting, and burning with enthusiasm.” More recently, the Black community has also been blamed for the national rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, even though studies suggest most perpetrators of anti-Asian violence are white.
A study by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University cites several aspects of WeChat responsible for amplifying misinformation. Chi Zhang, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who authored the Tow Center report, analyzed posts published on WeChat throughout 2017. Zhang concluded that WeChat is a closed, conservative-leaning information ecosystem that lacks any meaningful left-wing counter narrative.
“Intense competition among WeChat publishers creates an ecosystem that rewards speed and sensationalism, contributing to the prevalence of question headlines, emotional hyperbole, and rapid replication of content,” writes Zhang.
Zhang noted that WeChat discourse places disproportionate emphasis on racialized “culture war” issues—such as affirmative action and undocumented immigration—which are particularly susceptible to hyperbole. Moreover, WeChat’s low barrier to user entry, which allows virtually any user to create their own official microblogging outlet to disseminate unique or repackaged content, further encourages the spread of misinformation. Most WeChat outlets have a relatively small follower count; many therefore try to distinguish themselves with provocative and highly editorialized content.
This affects individual WeChat users because misinformation can echo through several outlets, amplifying an exaggerated message through mass repetition. Zhang described the phenomenon as a “long tail of outlets that wield minimal influence by themselves, but together their abundance gives misinformation ample opportunity to multiply, distorting or masking the original source.”
“What’s especially worrisome in information ecosystems like these is their central influence on the first-generation immigrant experience and integration with U.S. society,” writes Zhang.
Eileen Huang and Sunnie Liu, the co-founders of The WeChat Project, are also alarmed by how quickly political misinformation shared through WeChat is adopted by many of its first-generation Asian American users. It’s a concern that’s disturbingly not reflected in mainstream media conversations about social media and misinformation that have dominated headlines for years, especially with their impact in the last two presidential elections. Those discussions have largely focused on English-language social media, while the profound and well-documented effects of misinformation in Asian American social media have been overlooked and ignored.
This is all despite the fact that Asian American voter turnout rose by at least 45% in the last presidential election and were likely key to Biden’s victory. Contrary to the perpetual foreigner stereotypes that portray Asian Americans as non-stakeholders in American politics, the evidence points to a level of Asian American political participation, including the consumption of misinformation, that warrants close attention. Indeed, many Asian American organizers and scholars warn that if right-wing misformation continues to proliferate unchecked in Asian American social media spaces, Asian Americans voters’ broad support for left-wing causes and candidates might begin to erode.
“There’s this whole trend of radicalization and right-wing mobilization that’s happening on WeChat, and nobody is addressing it,” Huang said.
Liu explained that WeChat is used for both social media and news, which isn’t all that different from other social media platforms. The problem is however that on WeChat the line between original content and news is especially blurry, and posts tend to be unregulated, sensationalized, poorly-researched, and repackaged versions of stories already circulating through mainstream right-wing media.
“Those stories are shared through group chats, where people just spread the same kind of news over and over again—and so it becomes an echo chamber,” Liu said. “If we were comparing a Michelin-starred restaurant to a fast-food chain, WeChat would definitely be the fast-food chain version of journalism.”
Like other progressive Asian Americans, Liu’s experience with the right-wing side of WeChat comes primarily through their parents.
“My parents are both conservative,” Liu said. “Sometimes my mom is more prone to falling for misinformation, and so I get shared a lot of those sorts of articles that she gets from WeChat.”
Liu and Huang are frustrated by WeChat’s imbalance of voices from across the political spectrum. Asian American progressive messaging is particularly rare: Liu noted that compared to 65 conservative outlets, there are only three progressive outlets on WeChat. Attempting to address this imbalance, Liu, Huang, and other young, mostly second-generation Asian Americans formed The WeChat Project in the summer of 2020. Like other initiatives led by young Asian American progressives—such as Viet Fact Check and the Letters for Black Lives—the WeChat Project focuses on creating in-language political resources that can be readily distributed through ethnic news media and social networks.
“The mission of The WeChat Project is to fight right-wing misinformation on WeChat, to provide alternative progressive views, and to spark and continue intergenerational conversations on these topics,” Liu said.
As part of The WeChat Project’s launch, Huang wrote an open letter for Chinese American, one of the few progressive WeChat microblogging outlets. In their letter, Huang urged Asian Americans to support national Black Lives Matter protests. That letter went viral on WeChat, sparking several response pieces including many that drew upon anti-Black stereotypes to criticize the movement for Black Lives Matter as “thugs.” Huang was also targeted in an intense campaign of digital harassment, a response that Huang says is commonly experienced by progressives on WeChat.
“The kind of responses I got are part of why I decided to start the WeChat Project: to push back against all this different disinformation and radicalization that’s happening in this space,” Huang said.
Originally formed to spark conversations on anti-Blackness, The WeChat Project has now expanded its scope into other topics, while still encouraging its volunteers to write and translate progressive articles so that they are culturally salient for WeChat users. At one point Huang was worried that federal efforts to ban WeChat in America might spell the end for The WeChat Project, but they quickly realized that right-wing misinformation would continue to spread in the Asian American community even if users migrated away from the WeChat platform.
“We’re trying to bring these leftist, progressive points of view to WeChat, and in doing that we’re finding that we’re reaching not just people who are first-generation or our parents’ ages,” Liu said. “Even if younger Asian Americans aren’t necessarily conservative, many are neoliberal. So, we’ve expanded our work into English-language social media too, as we’ve realized the power of social media in general for bringing these progressive ideas to people and to start conversations.”
Huang is heartened by the progress that efforts like The WeChat Project has made. The benefits of the project haven’t been limited to proactively countering false narratives and misinformation. It’s also resulted in strengthening the network of Asian American progressives on WeChat. Before they began the project with Liu, Huang hadn’t been aware of other WeChat users also trying to combat right-wing disinformation and radicalization.
“We’ve connected with all these great folks who are doing very necessary work trying to digitally engage Chinese Americans and other people in the Asian diaspora,” Huang said. “Together, we have more manpower and we can keep collectively brainstorming and building initiatives to keep this kind of misinformed conservativism from causing any more real-world harm.”
“We hope to continue bringing these different viewpoints and starting conversations on WeChat, rather than just reacting to conversations that are already on this platform,” Liu said.