Nov 24, 2020 - World

America's Chinese communities struggle with online disinformation

Illustration of the Chinese flag made from chat bubbles
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Disinformation has proliferated on Chinese-language websites and platforms like WeChat that are popular with Chinese speakers in the U.S., just as it has on English-language websites.

Why it matters: There are fewer fact-checking sites and other sources of reliable information in Chinese, making it even harder to push back against disinformation.

Driving the news: Unknown perpetrators attempted to scare Chinese Americans away from the polls on Election Day, ProPublica reports.

  • On WeChat, at least two dozen groups disseminated the false narrative that the Department of Homeland Security planned to dispatch the military to subdue riots. 
  • Bannon and Guo amplified conspiracy theories relating to the coronavirus and to Hunter Biden's ties to China, in both English and Chinese-language media ahead of the election.
  • “They’re trying to imitate tactics used by QAnon,” Keenan Chen, a researcher for the disinformation-tracking nonprofit First Draft, told Foreign Policy.

The big picture: Chinese-language disinformation in the U.S. often appears to be aimed at suppressing minority political participation, stirring up fears, or appealing to concerns about "liberal excess." It's often adapted from disinformation that's already circulating in English.

  • "This is not unlike what’s happening in English language social media," said Shaw San Liu, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco, a grassroots organization aimed at serving local Chinese communities that also works to combat disinformation.
  • "The spin and disinformation can distract from the real issues and the real substantive policy debates that we want everyone in a democratic society to be able to participate in," Liu said.

How it works: On Chinese media platforms like WeChat, political discourse is “asymmetrically polarized,” according to Chi Zhang of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. 

  • Because Chinese American immigrants often cannot access mainstream English-language media — and don't see their community covered in stories — WeChat becomes their primary source of news.
  • The problem is that information on WeChat is often hyperpartisan, transplanted from American news sites and social media. Right-wing narratives dominate the platform in both reach and volume, Zhang’s research shows. 
  • False or misleading information circulate heavily around hot-button issues like affirmative action, Black Lives Matter and undocumented immigrants. 

Plus, there are few fact-checking systems in place. Anyone can create a microblog account and disseminate information through a newsfeed or private group chats.

  • "The media outlets that cater to the Chinese diaspora — a jumble of independent websites, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts with anti-Beijing leanings — have formed a fast-growing echo chamber for misinformation," New York Times reporters Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, and Danny Hakim wrote in a Nov. 20 article.
  • "With few reliable Chinese-language news sources to fact-check them, rumors can quickly harden into a distorted reality. Increasingly, they are feeding and being fed by far-right American media."
Go deeper