During the lead-up to last year’s aldermanic election, a Chinatown civic leader observed a proliferation of political disinformation within his community.

Yonggang Xiao, civic engagement manager at Coalition For A Better Chinese American Community, said neighbors approached him in early 2023 with dubious posters that had been delivered to their mailboxes. According to Xiao, the posters maligned political candidates in the aldermanic election with concocted biographical details and false policy platforms accompanied by distorted, black-and-white images of candidates.

Xiao said that the spread of disinformation was even worse by last October after Mayor Brandon Johnson proposed building a tent camp in Brighton Park, slated to accommodate asylum seekers transported from Texas. According to Xiao, someone left anonymous letters on residents’ doors, in English, that accused Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th) of colluding with Johnson by endorsing the shelter’s creation without community input. In Brighton Park, eighty-three percent of residents speak a non-English language at home and forty-two percent speak English less than “very well,” according to CMAP’s 2023 Community Data Snapshot.

At the same time, fabricated narratives regarding the decision-making process behind the camp began surfacing on the Chinese messaging and social media platform WeChat, on which Chicago’s Chinese residents started group chats dedicated to following the camp’s progress and national immigration politics. Xiao saw multiple group chats circulating false claims that  State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-IL) and Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) will raise real estate taxes to accommodate more refugees. Other messages spread disinformation that Venezuelan migrants immediately receive green cards upon arrival in the United States, in contrast to the protracted naturalization process faced by many Chinese immigrants. In reality, there was no tax code amendment, and as of late January, according to CBS News, only about five percent of migrants had had a work permit approved.

Xiao said that these articles lacked credible sources. A New York-based WeChat account attempts to counter misinformation with fact-checking but has limited capacity to parse through false narratives originating in Chicago, according to Xiao.

Many of the articles perpetuate xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, exploiting Chinese residents’ sense of marginalization and political disenfranchisement in the United States, according to Xiao. Several articles depicted the recent migrant population in New York and other cities, including Chicago, as gang members from Venezuela involved in organized crimes such as robbery and violence against women. The rise of conservative-leaning anti-immigration group chats on WeChat has been documented as early as 2015

On October 19, a physical confrontation took place near the proposed campsite at 38th & California, when Ramirez was arriving to address the community grievances. A crowd of protesters, many of whom were Chinese, converged around Ramirez and assaulted her and her top aide.

Although the construction of the camp was eventually canceled due to environmental concerns at the proposed site, Xiao emphasized that the incident underscored the “pernicious impact of disinformation” within the immigrant community.

“It is harmful for a community to make their decisions based on bad information,” Xiao said. “It can lead to poor decision-making with choices that deviate from their initial will.”

Since last November, the CBCAC and Project VISION, a Chinatown-based education nonprofit, have conducted four anti-disinformation workshops aimed at empowering community members to discern fake news. Their most recent workshop on March 29, held at CBCAC’s office at 311 W. 23rd Street, concentrated on electoral disinformation and attracted approximately thirty attendees.

“When we talk about news, we’re also looking for where it comes from,” said Ben Xing, parent engagement coordinator at Project VISION and co-facilitator of the workshops. “It seems like a lot of our [participants], and also even people in general, they don’t tend to look for where the source comes from.” Xing then based the workshop on these observations.

During the workshops, attendees engaged in activities like the telephone game––with participants whispering an initial message from person to person and then comparing the original with the final message—and reviewed past instances of disinformation in their community. The workshop also discussed the difference between a fact and an opinion and introduced the SIFT Method, an evaluation strategy used to determine if online content is reliable and trustworthy.

Xiao said that as nonprofit entities, their organizations maintain nonpartisan stances and refrain from endorsing any political party. Their objective is to enable informed decision-making among citizens, according to Xiao. 

Deng Xijian, sixty-five, a retired community member who attended the workshops, recounted conflicts with friends during the election season due to fake news. She had observed biased portrayals of candidates, including false narratives about their backgrounds and policy positions. However, her attempts to debunk these falsehoods among her friends were met with skepticism, as they had already internalized the misinformation.

“Many participants were outraged upon learning that they had been exposed to fake news,” she said. “Several admitted to refraining from voting for certain candidates based on false information they had received and believed.”

Xiao noted that fake news proliferates more easily within immigrant communities due to the insularity of their information networks. For example, WeChat chat groups are invitation-only. He estimates that for news consumption, the majority of Chinese residents in Chinatown rely on or prefer WeChat to access content translated and edited in Chinese, even if they can read content in English.

Xing also identified language barriers as a primary contributor to misinformation in the Chinese community. When news is misinterpreted in Chinese, false information is passed on to others who might not have the English proficiency to verify the information with primary sources, triggering a cascading effect.

Xing expressed concern that if misinformation is accepted as truth, or if the community consistently consumes incomplete information, it could lead to division within the community or trigger future conflicts with other communities, such as the incident in Brighton Park.

However, Xing remains active, expressing optimism that the workshops will empower community members to make informed decisions based on reliable information.

“We [want to help] our families grow awareness of how not to be misled,” Xing said.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Xuandi Wang is a journalist and policy researcher whose writing has appeared in Block Club, the Chicago Reader, In These Times, and elsewhere.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *