In August I was on the phone with my mother, a 70-year-old Korean immigrant, to discuss the upcoming election. In the past, she had complained that President Trump was a lunatic, so I naturally assumed that she would support — or at least be neutral about — Joe Biden.
“I don’t like him either,” she told me. “He’ll be soft on China. I know all about his son Hunter’s business dealings there.”
Hearing her parrot a right-wing talking point was out of the ordinary. My mother doesn’t watch Fox News or any other English-language news. In her 40-plus years living in the United States, she has never voted. Alarmed, I began calling her more often to whack down spurious claims, as if I were playing a carnival game. Sick of my calls, my mother eventually registered to vote for the first time and voted for Mr. Biden.
But since the election, the fake news she hears has only worsened, spiking from Fox News talking points to batty QAnon-level conspiracy theories. When I ask where she gets her news, my mother simply says, everyone thinks this.
“Who is everyone?”
“Everyone!” she insists, rattling off all her friends who have told her falsehoods that George Soros or Bill Gates will control Mr. Biden. As if under the spell of a cult, my mother has a fresh new conspiracy theory for me each time we speak. Recently, she asked me if Mr. Biden stole the election — because how else could thousands of votes suddenly have appeared for him in Michigan?
While it’s well established that fake news is spiraling out of control, we must pay attention to the disinformation rapidly hatching in nonwhite immigrant communities as well. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing electorate in the nation and are becoming a powerful voter bloc as more and more live in swing states. Polls have so far shown that Asian-Americans voted for Mr. Biden by a smaller margin than they did for Hillary Clinton in 2016, a rightward trend that Christine Chen, executive director of the nonpartisan civic organization APIAVote, said could be partly because of an influx of disinformation. With the upcoming U.S. Senate elections in Georgia, Democrats cannot afford much slippage.
Right-wing conspiracy theories have infiltrated Asian and Latino communities through social media platforms like WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook, KakaoTalk and YouTube. Organizers say that older immigrants who don’t consume mainstream English-language media can be more susceptible to disinformation about American politics. “Disinformation is really hard to track because it isn’t just contained in the continental U.S. but being lobbied from friends and family from, let’s say, Colombia,” María Teresa Kumar, chief executive of Voto Latino, said. “Democrats don’t understand how deep it is.”
Nonwhite voters are the Democratic Party’s base, but the party has ignored them, assuming that the Republican Party’s racist and nativist politics would be enough to mobilize them. An APIAVote survey conducted this past summer found that half of Asian-Americans had not been contacted by either party. This is typical. Asian-Americans have historically been left out of voter outreach efforts because they make up just under 6 percent of the nation and cluster in blue coastal states. Trying to engage an atomized demographic that speaks dozens of different languages can also pose a challenge to political organizers.
Asian-Americans and Latinos both comprise dozens of different nationalities, making it difficult to draw broad conclusions about their voting patterns. But anti-communism has traditionally been part of the Republican Party’s appeal to older immigrants, and disinformation that paints the Democratic Party’s platform as socialist has reinforced that appeal, especially among some older Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese immigrants who fear anything left-of-center teeters too close to the Chinese Communist Party. Right-wing groups have also used WhatsApp and WeChat to smear the goals of Black Lives Matter, warning that mass riots were to occur on Election Day, to deter Asian and Latino immigrants from going out to vote.
It’s nearly impossible to chase down all the disinformation scattered across the globe. It’s spread by former Trump aides, foreign governments and a Falun Gong-backed media empire determined to take down the Chinese government. Steve Bannon partnered with the exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui to plant bogus stories of hidden business dealings by the Biden family in China, which then went viral among the Chinese diaspora. Nguyen Dinh Thang, president of the civil society organization Boat People SOS, has noticed many Vietnamese-language Facebook pages, some with tens of thousands of followers, spreading falsehoods about the U.S. elections to Vietnamese nationals and immigrants.
The disinformation that reaches my mother from ethnic language platforms is often traced to Mr. Trump himself. My mother doesn’t get her news from conservative Korean YouTube channels or the messenger platform KakaoTalk. She hears it over the phone from friends, some of whom recently told her that hospitals have been inflating Covid-19 death numbers to qualify for more insurance money. She had no idea the president falsely claimed that during a rally in October.
If the global ubiquity of fake news is not addressed, it could continue to peel away minority community support that Democrats count on. Disinformation has been weaponized to poach on immigrant fears so that, like their white working-class counterparts, some Asian and Latino immigrants are voting against their economic interests. With tech giants refusing to provide serious oversight, fake news not only exploits their fears of socialism but provokes any latent anti-Black prejudices, warning that to “defund the police” would lead to anarchy.
Democrats and progressives must be surgical in their canvassing, and train many more bilingual volunteers to reach out to immigrant voters via social media and in-person, finding trusted messengers who take the time to build relationships with community leaders. Grassroots organizations like the Georgia-based Asian American Advocacy Fund, VietFactCheck and Asian Americans Against Trump have been committed to that labor.
Lastly, for progressives who come from immigrant families, it’s up to us. We must use our blood connections to counter these lie machines by engaging with our families and friends about, for instance, the crucial importance of the Georgia Senate elections or the detailed policies behind the “defund the police” movement that can help stop cops from killing Black people.
In November, Asian-Americans came out in record numbers and helped deliver swing states like Georgia to Mr. Biden. In Georgia’s Seventh District, which flipped from red to blue this election, 41 percent of the electorate were first-time voters as a result of grass-roots efforts and family outreach. I talked to one Korean-American woman who said she was flying to Atlanta to escort her mother, who had never voted before, to the polls.
My own mother now asks me about every story she hears. Granted, she also has other motives. “If I tell you what I hear,” she said, “then I know you’ll call me back.”
Cathy Park Hong (@cathyparkhong) is the author of “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.”
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