Online, information and disinformation cross huge physical distances easily. Applications like WeChat and YouTube keep Asian American communities more connected to far-flung friends and family than ever. By comparison, bridging the dinner table and its language and generational differences can prove much more daunting.
Host Rachel Kuo explores how disinformation circulates in Asian American communities, from the workings of ‘auntie information networks’ to the role of history in shaping how communities access and evaluate information.
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About our experts
Host: Rachel Kuo
Rachel Kuo researches and writes on race, social movements, and digital technology. Her research engages contemporary debates about activism and corporate and state governance of data-driven technologies through racial and colonial histories. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CITAP and holds a PhD in Media, Culture, and Communication from New York University. Her current manuscript interrogates the concept of ‘solidarity’ across media objects and platforms and demonstrates how technologies enhance and foreclose possibilities for political organization across uneven racial and class differences. She is a founding member and current affiliate of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies and also a co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective. Her writing has been published in New Media and Society, Journal of Communication, Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Open Democracy, and Everyday Feminism.
Guest: Sunnie Liu
Sunnie Liu is a co-founder of Xīn Shēng Project (formerly WeChat Project), head of staff at the Yale Asian American Cultural Center, rising senior at Yale University, and interdisciplinary artist. An immigrant dedicated to intersectional activism, Sunnie has also advocated for racial, economic, and gender justice with People’s Action, Mobilization for Justice, Ascend Justice, and DesegregateCT, among others. Sunnie’s artwork has been featured by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, BLUEorange Gallery, Yale Norfolk School of Art Residency, and more.
Guest: Sarah Nguyễn
Sarah Nguyễn is a PhD student at University of Washington’s Information School. Their research investigates misinformation crises among diasporic communities and privacy of sensitive data within qualitative research practices. Previously during the course of a masters in library and information science program, Sarah contributed to library and archival programs that advocated for openness and preservation of at-risk digital media: CUNY City Tech Open Education Resources, Preserve This Podcast, software reproducibility with NYU Bobst, and the Mark Morris Dance Group Archives.
Guest: Sharmin Hossain
Sharmin Hossain is a Bangladeshi-American queer Muslim political consultant, organizer and artist, from Queens, New York. She is one of the co-founders of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective, and the Co-Director of Queer Crescent, a healing justice organization centered on community, culture, safety, and healing arts for LGBTQIA+ Muslims. As the 2015 Open Society Youth Exchange Fellow, Sharmin founded the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project, a political theatre and archive documenting Bangladeshi resilience. Sharmin was formerly the Political Director at Equality Labs, an Ambedkarite South Asian progressive power-building organization that uses community research and cultural and political organizing to fight caste apartheid, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance. A co-founder of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective and graduate from CUNY Hunter College, Sharmin is committed to community based arts practice, leadership development, South Asian political history and liberation struggles.
CITAP panelist: Deen Freelon, Associate Professor – UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism, CITAP Principal Investigator
CITAP panelist: Madhavi Reddi, PhD student at UNC – Chapel Hill, CITAP Graduate Research Affiliate
CITAP panelist: Kristen Bowen, PhD candidate at UNC – Chapel Hill, CITAP Graduate Research Affiliate
In this episode, we referred to or drew from:
- Xīn Shēng | 心声 Project (formerly the WeChat Project)
- Viet Fact Check
- Equality Labs
- “Early findings from explorations into the Vietnamese misinformation crisis.” University of Washington Center for an Informed Public. Sarah Nguyễn and Rachel Moran.
- “From Our Fellows: Future Directions & Possibilities for Critical Disinformation Studies.” Center for Democracy & Technology. Rachel Kuo.
- “When misinformation comes for the family WhatsApp.” Rest of World. Meghna Rao.
- “Social media sites popular with Asian Americans have a big misinformation problem.” Prism. Jenn Fang.
- “Infrastructures of Empire: Towards a Critical Geopolitics of Media and Information Studies.” Media, Culture and Society. Miriyam Aouragh and Paula Chakravartty.
- “‘Scattered Like Sand’ WeChat Warriors in the Trial of Peter Liang.” Amerasia Journal. YuanYuan Feng and Mark Tseng-Putterman
Sunnie Liu 00:03
At our dinner table often, there’s not just this disconnect in terms of us coming from completely different generations and I also live with my grandmother. There’s these three generations, but our three generations have experienced such different histories. Even if we can communicate on a day-to-day basis, none of us can really express complicated political ideas and the languages we’re not most comfortable with. We cannot have political debates about things like Black Lives Matter or anti-Asian violence at the dinner table.
Rachel Kuo 00:35
I think there is so much in terms of the ways that information is circulating on these digital platforms that is really circulated by our aunties, our elders.
Kathryn Peters 00:48
Welcome to Does Not Compute, a podcast about technology, people, and power. Our host this week is Dr. Rachel Kuo, a postdoctoral researcher here at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. Rachel researches race and social movements. In this episode, she’s exploring disinformation as it spreads across national borders, information that works from dinner tables to digital platforms, and the role of history in shaping how communities access and evaluate information.
Rachel Kuo 01:15
One of the main ways I’ve been staying in touch with my family is through a group text thread. In this past year, I’ve received many a health meme with not great information like videos and graphics telling me that coating my throat in water every 20 minutes is going to protect me from COVID. On the one hand, I’ve been seeing a lot of mis- and disinformation coming as a form of care from people that I love dearly.
In a lot of conversations with friends, there’s been shared concerns and worry over family member’s information access such as loved ones who may not have access to updated health info translated in their primary languages. On the other, we’re also seeing a lot of mis- and disinformation coming from governments that stoke racist and nationalistic narratives. I’m Rachel Kuo, and I’m interested in collective movement building and how our histories play a role in our engagement with political information systems.
In this episode, we’re bringing together Asian American organizers and researchers to talk about the politics and histories behind mis- and disinformation in our communities. This is an episode about transnational intergenerational and multilingual community networks of information and the political stakes of building healthy and democratic information systems. We’re going to talk about community networks, including WeChat, a Chinese language social media platform and Vietnamese media on YouTube.
We’ll also talk about access and participation in different information systems as tied to a broader structural and historical inequalities and social cultural contexts. We’ll also discuss the slow forms of violence that lead to these consequences of mis- and disinformation. There’s also increased attention and concern about the ways that white being radicalism and nationalistic politics spreads across these networks.
Different Asian American organizations, such as Equality Labs, the WeChat project and Viet Fact Check have created language specific media projects to intervene on mis- and disinformation within specific Asian communities. The spread of mis- and disinformation within our communities can be tied to people’s lived experiences of trauma, war, political suppression, as well as formations of power across class, cast, ethnicity and religion.
Sunnie Liu is a rising senior at Yale college and is a founding member of the WeChat project along with Claire Chang, Dor Aguo, Eileen Wang, Sabrina Lynn, and Oriana Tang. Led by young Chinese and Asian Americans to fight right wing political disinformation, the WeChat project encourages intergenerational communication by providing progressive perspectives for the Chinese diaspora on WeChat and beyond. Sunnie, can you tell us a bit more about the WeChat project and why it began?
Sunnie Liu 03:53
We started it last summer in 2020 in response to the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and others at the hands of the police. It was a group of young Chinese Americans who started the WeChat project to try to fight anti-blackness within our own community, but as you mentioned, since then articles have really expanded to not just do that, but combat right wing disinformation, provide progressive point of views from our generation, foster intergenerational conversations, and build trans-national intersectional solidarity for the Chinese diaspora on WeChat and beyond.
For me, this project was really personal because my parents are the only ones among our family members who themselves hold conservative right-wing beliefs. I think that what I experienced at the dinner table is pretty emblematic of a lot of Chinese American families. At our dinner table, often, there’s not just this disconnect in terms of us coming from completely different generations, and I also live with my grandmother.
There’s these three generations, but our three generations have experienced such different histories. My parents lived through the cultural revolution and CCP’s rule, but also the CCP transition from communism to a more capitalist state. My grandma lived through the communist revolution, survived starvation and grew up in the rural countryside without much education. Even if we can communicate on a day-to-day basis, none of us can really express complicated political ideas and the languages we’re not most comfortable with.
We cannot have political debates about things like Black Lives Matter, or anti-Asian violence at the dinner table. My parents or grandma also read and watch Chinese language news, versus I read and watch English language news and so we also get different information coming through to us. Beyond just the generational divisions among our Chinese American community, there’s culture, language and information gaps that we’re trying to bridge through the WeChat project.
One of the things about WeChat is that it’s often this one-stop shop. It’s a platform for information, news sharing, for community connection and I’d love to hear a little bit more about WeChat itself as a platform and how information circulates on WeChat, and how might something like mis- and disinformation end up circulating on this platform?
It’s a one-stop shop in terms of social media communication and even organizing news for the Chinese diaspora, especially first-generation immigrants. I like to think of it as, if you were to imagine that Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, CNN, New York times were all on one app, that would be the WeChat for the Chinese diaspora especially like I said, first generation immigrants.
It is a mobile app and so most people are using it on their phones, not necessarily watching news on TV, or on a big screen or even reading it on your computer. You’re not going to want to spend an hour reading a multi-page document on your phone. The consumption of news and the news cycle that’s on there is so quick, people describe it as “fast food news”. It’s lots of clickbait, even lots of rumors that become fact, it’s these blog posts, pop ads and honestly, sometimes just rant by people.
All of these are being treated as much as news as maybe something like the New York Times would provide. Imagine if your cousin went on a rant about why he believed that Trump was the future of America and why you need to vote for him, and it was just a two paragraph rant that maybe you would see on Facebook and ignore, but on WeChat, that could be treated as news.
What are the ways that deeper community ties might pull people into mis- and disinformation about politics. Again, because you mentioned this importance of different histories of migration, different cultural contexts and the ways that people really draw on these personal and intimate ways that they’re navigating this information landscape, what are the ways that deep community ties impact how people navigate a space like WeChat?
It often starts in real life. For example, my own parents were more radicalized to the right because of their Baptist Christian Church, when they first immigrated to the United States almost 20 years ago, they’re young in their 30s and they had honestly no friends, no community, when they came here. The first community they found that they felt accepted in and cared for in, was the local Baptist Christian Church.
It was also explicitly right wing in its politics. The pastor gave sermons on things like why he believed our cities should not pass transgender bathroom bills. He would say that was very transphobic, how being someone who’s not cis is sinful and that would mean that you go to hell and supporting people like that would also mean that you go to hell. This church mostly targeted recent first generation Chinese American immigrants who are largely relatively low income, because one way they would draw a lot of people in is that they offered free food every time they met on Fridays and Sundays, they offered free childcare, they offered free ESL lessons, they offered free Chinese lessons for the children.
If someone who cares about you tells you that they believe in something and you should believe in that too, and you don’t really have maybe other preconceived notions, it is much easier to fall to that right wing disinformation.
I’d love to hear a little bit about how the WeChat project makes its narrative intervention. How are you all using WeChat?
Going back to the dinner table story that I was telling at the beginning is that, because of not just the generational divide, but the language, the cultural, the information divide, parents and grandparents have no idea what their children and grandchildren are thinking, especially if there is this language barrier existing. They can read what we’re saying on WeChat, that explains, “Hey, this is what leftist young Chinese diasporic members are believing and things like Black Lives Matter.”
I think another reason why we’ve been able to reach the folks on WeChat, who are largely these first generation immigrants who are of our parent’s or grandparent’s generation, is that where we never tried to come off as didactic. We want to come from a place of love and care for our community, we want to see our community improve and we also want to see our community not only care for each other, but care for other communities of color. We write from very personal perspectives.
What are some of the things that you’ve learned about political organizing and also information sharing across language and generations through your work as one of the co-leaders of the WeChat project?
One of the big lessons I’ve learned through the WeChat projects in the past year is, what you’re saying about how much our histories influence our political beliefs, and also how we see our own personal experiences. Many of the Chinese Americans on WeChat came as a result of the immigration act of 1965, which selected for in a way, more highly educated people who were able to immigrate to the United States and not rely on governmental help like welfare.
A lot of the reactions currently to the anti-Asian violence being in the headlines is that a lot of folks on WeChat are talking about how these are individual acts by individual people, but not addressing the systemic issues at the root of these issues.
Sarah Nguyễn, is a PhD student at the University of Washington’s Information School. She’s working on a project called Sending News Back Home: Analyzing the Spread of Misinformation between Vietnam and Diasporic Communities in the 2020 Election with Dr. Rachel Moran at the Center for an Informed Public.
Hi, Sarah. Great to have you here with us today, but I know this past year has been time where people have been spending time a lot in intergenerational households and with family. I’d love to hear a little bit. What have you learned from your family in terms of information circulation and narratives?
Sarah Nguyễn 12:47
I moved out of New York after being there for six years and went back to my family’s home in California and where my parents were, my uncle who’s on my mom’s side is close by, my siblings came home and we were there basically for the majority of COVID 2020. That’s when we really started just seeing how does everyone get their information? How do they ingest it? How do they receive it?
We all share it on our family chat using Telegram, but it really showed where their sources were from or what they believed in. I was just talking to my mom and my sister the other day, and when my mom left– She’s an immigrant from Vietnam and when she left Vietnam and she made it to Malaysia as her first stopping point, she sent a Telegram back to Vietnam saying like, “we made it.”
Coming to the US it evolved to letters and then newspapers, traditional print is still really popular within the Vietnamese diaspora and in how my parents, whenever we go to any Vietnamese ethnoburb like San Jose, they still pick up a newspaper, even though they have full access to Facebook, online news, YouTube and everything else, common in a lot of Vietnamese families today.
There’s just YouTube playing on in the background all day and that’s just because there’s so many Vietnamese YouTube channels where people are from Vietnam or within the Vietnamese American diaspora are producing full on shows, news shows, films, dramas, everything and they’re just all being posted to because it’s such an easy way to share as well as easy way to monetize the work that they do.
Within that, it’s just, they’re really delved into the YouTube world of information, which has a lot of, as we can see now, ways to go into a rabbit hole of misinformation.
I’d love to hear a little bit more about your experiences, observing how your family has been using YouTube and maybe also some stories of maybe how you have used YouTube, like with your family as well.
For my dad who has been in industry working out in the field for 30 plus years at this point, and my mom has been a homemaker. The way that they ingest information has been very different than what they seek. My mom has been really into more of the culture side, and she loves watching these Vietnamese dramas and kung-fu films and cooking shows, between commercials or what YouTube has recommended them, it has connected her to a lot of these nostalgia type channels.
Then the opposite end of with my dad who is more open to reading about what’s happening in the business world, more entrepreneurial, which is very prevalent within Vietnamese diaspora, as they’re trying to catch up with what’s happening within capitalism and prove that they are just as economically aware and successful as any other country. My dad looks into these very entrepreneurial and tech forward types of YouTube channels, which buy into this kind of like investors and capitalist type forward type of narratives.
I know you’re doing the project on Vietnamese communities and the 2020 election. Can you share a little bit more about the role of YouTube during this 2020 election, especially in your communities and/or your family?
After being in the US for more than 30 years, my mom had never voted in any sort of election. This 2020 election was the first time that she had actually signed up as a voter and was open to the idea, but the only way that she did it was when we actually got the ballots to do it at home. She was like, “Oh, I have to do more work.” Myself and my sister, we sat down with my mom and my dad, and then went through basically each voting ballot and then each type of cause and issue that was going on and showed them what was happening.
We put it up on the big screen and then showed them the background of each issue. One of the biggest things was going to show them YouTube videos of people explaining who were the people behind it, what was the actual cause. One of the biggest things that did come up is who is actually producing these videos because in the end, a lot of these videos are in English because that’s what myself and my sister understand, unlike political language.
On the other end, whenever we would bring these up, my parents would be like, “Well, on my channel, which was coming from someone who is in the Vietnamese diaspora producing their own news show or current events show, they have a different spin and take.” Our sources can be so different and where do they actually get them from can determine what you actually believe in your political identity or your beliefs around how you live daily life.
What are the kinds of mis- and disinformation narratives that you’ve been observing in your communities over the past year or so?
A lot of these narratives that myself and my co-researcher Rachel Moran, are looking, are finding and noticing is that a lot of them come from the conspiratorial QAnon world, very prominently. I think that those narratives definitely came out when the January 6th insurrection happened and the pre-Hồ Chí Minh flag was flying up with a lot of Confederate flags.
Some of them can either be, they still think that Biden is a fake person, just like a lot of other QAnon people, or there’s also, they feed into like the anti-vax community in saying that there’s a lot of more natural and other ways to mitigate what COVID is.
What I’d love to hear more about too, is what you’ve seen as community interventions to mis- and disinformation in your communities.
This idea of just having discussions at the dinner table with your family members and your community members, because food is the one place that we see as neutral, something that everyone can enjoy and come together and that’s where people talk about stories and really discuss things. It’s been nice that people have– That type of tradition has opened up where you can talk about more controversial ideas.
One of my favorite groups that has started doing this since 2016 is Viet Fact Check. They’re nationwide, they’re all working remotely, volunteer run. I’m pretty sure all of them are Vietnamese American and they’re just a small group who finds articles that have caused a lot of tension in the Vietnamese diaspora, and then do fact checking just like what you would see in like any other fact checking site and really bring out what the story is.
Then they also provide links out to archived articles of where the original sources and then where these newspapers and journalists at that time when they came out with that actually just picked things out of context. Viet Fact Check is a great one, the interpreter is another one that’s also based in the US, but it translates news articles from English to Vietnamese and vice versa, just because there’s a lot.
Google Translate itself is a very powerful machine, but it gets a lot of things wrong. Knowing the context of the words and the context of the political situation to really understand how to translate a word such as the word like fake news or misinformation. In Vietnamese, a lot of people can compare that to the word canard, which is a bird in French. That would not be translatable from Google Translate.
That would be so weird to see if in this transcript, we talked about misinformation but the word canard came up all the time. Along with all the work of just translating or doing fact-checking, there’s a lot more meeting the people into where the culture, where they are, so for Viet Fact Check specifically and talking to other community organizers, we’re finding that the way that you brand or stylize the information is really important.
How have you seen community interventions be made on a platform such as YouTube, where you’re noting that a lot of people are getting their news and information?
One of the big ones are these information modules, or what they also call credibility boxes on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, it’s just a little callout box, either at the top of the page or below. In this case, it’s usually below the YouTube video before the comments section, linking out to what they would call the more reputable or space of information that more people would trust, such as the CDC, or mostly a government agency that is trying to announce that type of information.
There’s numerous news channels, culture, current events, news channels that go on for an hour-long of Vietnamese news anchors speaking in Vietnamese, talking about current events all over the world. Then sometimes information is trickled in that we’re finding can be flagged as misinformation but YouTube does not flag that. These information boxes are supposed to mitigate that.
It’s funny how, if you’re watching a Vietnamese YouTube video and you see a box in English, the likelihood of someone clicking on that is probably very low. I would probably attribute this as a big action towards what Viet Fact Check has done. They were working really hard to talk to people at YouTube and pressure wider press to put notice on this and then after this BuzzFeed article came out about the problems of misinformation and YouTube in Vietnamese diaspora a couple of weeks later, YouTube actually changed that to be in Vietnamese.
Sharmin Hossain is a Bangladeshi American Muslim political consultant, organizer and artist from Queens, New York. She’s the co-founder of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective and creator of the Bangladeshi historical memory project. Previously Sharmin has served as the political director at Equality Labs, a South Asian progressive power building organization.
Shaman to get us started, can you share a little bit about what your observations have been about the kinds of information spreading in your communities and what the effects have been?
Sharmin Hossain 23:29
My name is Sharmin Hossain. I’m based in Queens, New York, which is a heavy immigrant community. We have community members from over 120 countries, many of whom are political asylees. In my community, which is a predominantly Bangladeshi South Asian community, we are witnessing a rise in COVID disinformation, but also, our communities are being targeted by the ruling parties of their homelands with hate speech, trolling, political disinformation, dissenters are being attacked.
Community members who come from journalists’ backgrounds, or folks who are working to highlight the inadequacies of government responses to COVID and/or scandals and vaccine distribution info, they are all being targeted by these ecosystems of disinformation in taking information through WhatsApp groups, Facebook, and other platforms like TikTok, and folks in South Asia at least, they definitely predominantly use Facebook and WhatsApp. Nowadays we’re witnessing it more on Instagram and Twitter, of course.
Who’s being targeted and why? What is the kind of information that people are being targeted for? What are some of the examples of this information spread that is so transnational on these platforms?
One of the most prominent examples that we just saw happen this week was in Bangladesh, a journalist named Rozina Islam is now facing death penalty for COVID reporting. She is a woman who has been doing critical investigative journalism around the government’s lack of response to COVID and now she is incarcerated and facing death penalty.
We are seeing a thread of community members in New York, people who come from Bangladesh that are being fed misinformation and disinformation about what is going on back home and how it correlates to the politics here. These folks are well-meaning folks, they are my aunties and uncles. They are the people that I’m in WhatsApp groups with, but because they’re not being fed accurate information about what is happening on the ground, people end up aligning with the ruling parties of our homelands, because it’s safer, because they know what will happen if they decide to debate or speak up.
There is a lot of right-wing Islamist incel activity that happens online. These same incel groups are also hiding the brutal attacks on Hindu villages that are happening in the past few months in Bangladesh. Islamist right-wing groups are burning homes, demolishing temples and attacking Hindus and Hindus are a minority group in Bangladesh. When you talk to people in Jackson Heights, Queens, “Hey, did you hear that there was like a village that was attacked? Many Hindus’ homes were burned.”
They will tell you, “No, I didn’t hear that. Also, that’s not what’s happening. Everybody hates Muslims. That’s why you’re hearing this information.” This trend of anti-democratic politics is actually deeply embedded within the Bangladeshi community. The last example, which I think has really defined my analysis of how harmful this ecosystem is, is the Myanmar genocide.
We saw hate speech against ethnic minorities on Facebook being waged in real-time. We saw genocidal acts taken out by nationalists in Myanmar for months, and it was happening live on Facebook. Everybody knows that South Asia is one of the fastest-growing populations of Facebook. Because our user population is growing so rapidly, so is the violence that is happening on that platform.
Of course, Facebook did not see it as a human rights crisis that they needed to intervene in and we witnessed millions of accounts of attacks on minorities, hate speech, trolling happening without any regulation.
One of the things that really strikes me as you’re speaking, is how you’re really pointing out how there’s these different structural inequalities and material conditions that are really exacerbating the kind of inequalities that we’re seeing and information ecosystems whether that’s access to information, being cut off from information and how information about communities does or does not circulate to a wider public.
Yes. I think what the Chinese government is doing to Uighur’s is a very poignant example of the way that ethnic cleansing camps and detention camps which Modi is also building for Muslims across Bengal and Assam, those are the vehicles under which governments like India and China are able to disenfranchise communities to the point where they do not exist.
We’re talking about landless migrants, we’re talking about people whose lands are being stolen from them because the Indian government, the Bangladeshi government, Chinese, every single government is actively controlling the ecosystem of information. We as people outside of those countries and those communities are not even able to hear the truth of what they are experiencing, which will impact the fact that we aren’t able to show solidarity with them.
In the digital world, we only see who gets the most likes, who is the most famous, who is the most popular and who the powerful want us to see. Who are we not seeing? To me, those are the people that are being erased from the internet.
Thank you so much for all of this.
This episode also features a conversation with Dr. Deen Freelon, Madhavi Reddi, and Kristen Bowen, about politics, relationships and information including the significance of family and community-based networks. We’ll also talk about information inequality and racial politics in Black and Asian communities.
Thank you all so much for joining me here for our conversation. One of the things that this podcast or this episode has really been thinking through is the ways that information circulates within specific communities and especially communities that have been marginalized in the ways that we bring our different histories and how we engage with information–
Thanks, Rachel. My name is Madhavi Reddi and I identify as Indian American. I will speak to the Indian diaspora and speaking to the Indian diaspora, I’d definitely say that WhatsApp is a big information network. In my experience, it is the primary mode of communication for people in India and in the diaspora. For example, my mom and dad’s graduate school WhatsApp group contains over 50 people from all over the globe, sharing updates about themselves pictures and importantly, WhatsApp forwards.
WhatsApp forwards, as I’ve heard them to be called, can be funny videos, they can be inspirational quotes, they can be religious content, and oftentimes they can be news items and sometimes this does include mis- and disinformation. People are always in touch with their relatives. In Indian context, your cousins are not your cousins, they’re your brothers and your sisters, so people tend to be very close to each other and so there are these huge family WhatsApp groups.
Communication transnationally is very important. The ability to share family updates is very, very important. Someone got engaged, someone got into college, all of those things. These groups then become places to share information about family, but inevitably they become spaces where WhatsApp forwards are shared frequently.
I’d love Kristen or Deen, if you want to weigh in on different forms of information networks, that you’ve also observed in different communities as well in the ways that information is circulating across different platforms.
Information networks obviously, are going to map onto different communities in different ways. I think if you’re talking about digital networks, one of the places that I observe a lot in my research is Twitter, which of course has a number of different uses for different communities. If you want to talk about Black Twitter, for example, that’s a really major platform and cultural space within which certain forms of blackness tend to play out.
Digitally, it has precedents in places like black planet, net Knorr and other spaces and I think just like anything else, there’s lots of different content that circulates through those, be it cultural, sports, music, dance, that sort of thing, as well as politics, mis- and disinformation, that sort of stuff.
Can you just say a little bit more too on the ways that mis- and disinformation might circulate within communities.
From the perspective of the person who’s consuming the content, mis- and disinformation goes along with everything else. In other words, I don’t think they see it as a distinct category, it’s just something that is there that goes along with the rest of the true and false stuff. In that sense, I think it’s difficult to pull out because it doesn’t come with a– Well plus the platform business, which in some cases they are trying to do this. If the content doesn’t come, which in many cases is the case with a red box drawn around and saying, this is the disinformation people aren’t going to notice it.
Oftentimes mis- and disinformation regardless of the community that it’s targeting, tends to play to those community aspects, it tends to be distinctly– And I guess in the case I’m talking about, distinctly Black or if it was for white conservatives, distinctly white and conservative. Because it seems to be boosting those bona fides or the characteristics that the people in those groups share, it tends to be questioned a little bit less.
Yes. For me, Facebook is really about family, maybe people you went to high school with. That’s where I see most of my mis- and disinformation. Like sharing the Facebook things where they’re like, “Oh, share this and you’ll be able to see more people on your timeline.” Or things like, “Oh, this person is going to give away $10,000 to five people. Share it and you’ll be in.” When it comes to my Facebook communities, there’s a lot of just trying to ignore that because on there’s a lot of the IT population for me and my family. You try to confront what they’re saying, and it just turns into a fight, a respect your elders kind of thing.
I actually would love to hear you or other folks jump in on this idea of also anti-information networks because I think there is so much in terms of the ways that information is circulating on these digital platforms that is really circulated by our aunties, our elders and both in the ways that I think many different people are fearful of mis- and disinformation circulating in like auntie and elder spaces, but then also what makes it very different is that a lot of the information circulating are different practices of care, ways that people are doing caretaking work through information sharing.
I’m actually really surprised to hear that the word aunty is used in other communities, in other contexts. I didn’t know that because in Indian culture, anyone who’s not your mom, but is your mom’s age is called aunty and same uncle for someone of your dad’s age. I have been interviewing aunties so to speak, and some of them have talked about how typically when they receive information, they may not know whether or not it is true, but out of precaution, out of care, like how Rachel mentioned the word care, out of care, they may forward it to people.
It may be something about COVID. Take care of yourself during COVID, it maybe something about safety just in general. They build this care culture, I guess, by sharing and receiving these messages that may or may not be true.
What this makes me think of is just a distinction between what you might call evidence-based epistemologies and relational epistemologies. I don’t know whether those are the technical terms, but the basic ideas that in academia, you make a claim and you’re like, “Oh, hey. Here is all the evidence, all the studies and well-founded statistical qualitative evidence for this.” That’s one thing.
The other piece of it is relational, where you say, “Well, I’m going to say this and you have to believe me because of the relationship that we share.” In other words, I have credibility because I’m related to you. For example, I have a relative who believes that microwaves cause cancer. This person does not have a microwave at their house, which is totally fine.
That is not a relationship that I’m willing to jeopardize by pointing out all the statistical evidence that shows that microwaves really don’t cause cancer because I’m not going to convince this person anyway.
I’m just going to let them have their thing and continue to have my totally fine and stable relationship with them because the importance of that is higher than me shooting them down and forcing this down their throat when it’s not going to work anyways.
The one that I often hear from my mom is the one that, if you go outside with wet hair, you are immediately going to get sick, which has evolved. If you go outside with wet hair, you will be more at risk for COVID. I’m not going to correct her on that, but then suddenly as I’m going outside after a shower that I’m like, “Maybe not with wet hair. Maybe I’ll take some time to dry it.” The different ways that these pieces of information, as we hear them every day also from loved ones and from relatives too that that seeps in. Their relationship and into the every day.
For individuals live at work is basically where they’re constrained by your economic status, they’re constraint by your proximity to people and these are the people you go to for information, things like that. That ties into the aunties thing because when I was trying to convince people to go get the vaccine, I’d be like, “Okay, my mom got it. She’s okay. Here, text her.” Stuff like that.
A lot of the older people I talk to. When I was seeing my uncle, it was just like, “Oh, all your sisters got it, stuff like that.” It was like in that side the aunties matter, the older people matter, this is what I’m going to do because of them.
Switching gears a little bit, there’s the ways that lived material inequalities really play into how people are able to experience, access and mobilize different forms of information–
One of the things we talked about in our podcast is how you have a distinction between an empowered group that is white conservatives and then certain segments of the Black community who share a misinformation narrative. One of the things we talked when we were discussing this is that obviously with the Black community in the United States, you’ve got this major history of medical racism, the lack of ability to determine your own medical educational et cetera, fates–
In the history of lack of real agency, as so much of their life has been decided for them through historical discrimination and the life course that was handed down for them. Their health outcomes are not like the fault of Black Americans choosing not to go to the doctor or take advantage of healthcare services. I focus on health and wellbeing, but instead of saying, “Oh, these things are out there, they have access to them, you need to think about more, what access means.” Such as, do people have ways to get there? A lot of them like, this is historical residential segregation.
Also resident integration determines your access to education. In those places where Black residents mostly live, you have more access to educational spaces that have less resources.
Since I started off speaking in Indian diasporic context, I’ll say that caste is something that definitely influences access to education, both in India and that spills over into the diaspora. People in India who are of upper caste are the ones who have access to higher education and are also often the ones who come here in larger numbers to the US or to other parts of the world.
Their access to education obviously impacts the way they receive and articulate and understand information. Any of the upper caste people that I have conducted oral histories with, do talk about how when they encounter information that they perceive to be false, that they perceive to be mis- or disinformation, they immediately will verify the source, they’ll immediately look up the same thing on CNN or a source that they trust, or they may disregard the WhatsApp foreword entirely. You see different patterns in the understanding of information that is heavily influenced by structural inequalities, like caste that persist across oceans and it’s an ongoing problem.
Rachel 41:22 Thanks Madhavi. I feel what you really bring us to, and I think both Kristen and Deen also named this, is that how historical these structural inequalities are now. The digital inequalities that we see today are very much rooted in different forms of history. I think one of the things Kristen that you’re also pointing as to is that there’s also something about like how then these histories and relationships with institutions, also sow different forms of tensions and conflict potentially across communities as well, and also within communities in terms of information that’s circulating.
I think one thing that has come up a lot and when we do talk to Asian American communities about mis- and disinformation in our communities is actually this longer history of anti-Black racism that circulates on platforms such as WeChat, such as WhatsApp, people become embedded in these information environments that are racist and then also propagate that information across each other.
That’s something that we’ve seen and talked about in our communities and simultaneously also noting that often xenophobia that has emerged during the pandemic, so anti-Chinese sentiment also very actively circulates in Asian and Asian American communities as well that given the different histories that different places might have, like with China.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles about is how WhatsApp is exacerbating the preexisting and ongoing Hindu-Muslim divisions amongst Indians, both in India and in the diaspora, through the widespread sharing of WhatsApp forwards that present say unverified data, call for violence and just spreading discriminatory sentiments overall. WhatsApp, speaking to this idea of communities against each other has been a place where that thought process has been flourishing.
Alternate networks of information, maybe forms of also disruptions and interventions for better or for worse.
I think a lot of what we’ve said previously applies, which is that the validity of a proposed intervention is going to depend in large part on where it comes from. People tend to evaluate claims more favorably when they come from folks that they trust. For the Black community, that means coming from friends, family, oftentimes from religious networks, churches, that sort of thing, and from the Black press, Black media, some cases Black Twitter, but the messenger really matters.
A lot of my research is basically participatory design and working with communities because what intervention is actually going to work if you don’t actually talk to the people that you’re trying to create for or do for. When we speak of aunty or elder networks, I also think of like elders, so church, which is one of the places where political discourse happens for a lot of Black communities, because if your pastor says, “Go get tested, go isolate.” Things like that.
I love how you point out that in our different communities, there’s this deep expertise of care that is not often thought of as expertise, often and people dismiss aunties and elders as political communities, but they actually do hold a lot of political power. Thank you so much Madhavi, Deen, and Kristen for joining us today for our podcast panel. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you all and hearing your stories, your expertise and thank you so much for sharing your time with us today.
Thank you Rachel, for weaving all these threads together. I learned so much about different social media platforms than the ones I use day to day, about the additional barriers to intergenerational communication in diasporic families, and about information sharing, even when it’s misinformation sharing as a form of care. Thanks also to our listeners for joining us for this story.
I hope you’ll return next week as Shannon McGregor explores how disinformation flatters our identities while we may find ourselves wanting very badly to believe things that aren’t true. It’s a great one. Does Not Compute is the work of an amazing team, including all of the researchers you’ve heard from, as well as our executive producer, Jacob Kramer Duffield, senior producer and editor Amarachi Anakaraonye, CITAP project coordinator and production assistant, Joanna Burke, music by Ketsa.
You can find us on Apple podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast listening platform under Does Not Compute. On the web, visit us @citap.unc.edu or connect with us on Twitter @UNC_CITAP.
Does Not Compute is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Made by: Amarachi Anakaraonye (Senior Producer), Joanna Burke (CITAP project coordinator), Jacob Kramer-Duffield (Executive Producer), and Kathryn Peters (etc)
Music: Ketsa, Parallel Worlds
Art: Logo by Contia’ Janetta Prince