When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early March, I moved to Long Island to live with a family friend who was an undocumented migrant. Throughout the summer, I got the chance to observe the Chinese undocumented migrants in New York City, a group seen as the ‘good immigrants’ by the public and tends to be ignored by researchers as well as the media. From my observations, I noticed that most of them had expressed their appreciation to anti-immigrant right-wing politicians, including President Donald J. Trump. With research on why they are against their own benefits, this study focuses on the effects of misinformation on undereducated Chinese migrants in the United States. In addition to specific case studies on false news, this study includes interviews with undocumented migrants whose identities I have hidden for their security. This study argues that the misinformation on some major Chinese social media, namely WeChat Official Accounts and Weibo, results in misperceptions and misconceptions on political matters.
To clarify, this study does not look into all Chinese migrants, documented or undocumented, among all age groups, political backgrounds, economic status, educational backgrounds, and professions. Instead, it focuses on undereducated Chinese migrant workers who are not proficient in English, were undocumented for some period in the United States, and earned less than the minimum wage before they came to the United States. Among these interviewees, some of them came to the United States alone in the late 1990s with nothing but the hope for a better life; some of them arrived with all the money they had, less than $5000, just before President Trump was elected. Most of the undocumented migrants I got in touch with were women without much educational background, and are not proficient in English in terms of reading news reports from major news outlets and understanding cable news with the exception of two women. The age range of the interviewees is from 20 to 57, and many of them have children and other relatives with them here in the United States.
To begin with, the concept of misinformation in this essay is defined as “false or unsupported claims that help create…belief in claims that can be shown to be false…or
unsupported by convincing and systematic evidence” (Nyhan 221). Unlike disinformation which requires the intention to mislead the public and the information recipients, the creators and paddlers of misinformation do not have to know what they talked about is false, and people do not need to know whether the sources really believe in what they provide. Although I have conducted several interviews with former and current undocumented migrants in this study, it is impossible to know the authors’ intentions and opinions behind every single article that serves as examples in this study. Therefore, the term ‘misinformation’ is used here instead of ‘fake news,’ ‘lies’ or ‘disinformation.’
Another term critical to understanding the information gap between Mainland China and the rest of the world is “the Great Firewall.” Initiated in 2000, the Golden Shield Project, the predecessor of the Great Firewall, was intended to stop the information flowing into Mainland China’s internet environment (Pingp 2011). Later, because of the sudden increase of internet users and information online, the Chinese government soon expanded the project, and started to restrict the access of users in Mainland China to major network services and platforms like Youtube, banned in March 2009, the New York Times, banned in 2012, and BBC, banned in July 2018, because of profit concerns and fear of Chinese citizens being influenced by anti-communism “foreign powers.” The most recent major website that people in Mainland China lost access to is Archive of Our Own, a non-profit website for posting fiction stories. In general, the Great Firewall stops people in Mainland China from getting access to most major news outlets around the world and contacting people outside Mainland China except those using Chinese social media. Using VPN, a virtual private network, to access websites outside the Great Firewall is against the law according to the Temporary Regulations of the Management of Accessing International Network of Computer Information Network in the People’s Republic of China. Article 6 regulates that “any unit or individual is not allowed to access the international network via or by constructing other information tunnels” other than the official network service of the Chinese government (js.gov.cn). On May 17, 2020, a man in Shanxi was found accessing websites outside the Great Firewall by the police and was punished with a 500 RMB (around $80) fine and an administrative warning according to the Hanbin Police Department news account.
Since Trump’s presidency, the discrimination and racial-based attacks targeting Asian Americans, Asian migrants, and all Asian people, especially Chinese, have risen drastically, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem even worse. President Trump has referred to COVID-19 on Twitter and in his speeches multiple times as the ‘China Virus’ and ‘Wuhan Virus.’ He has blamed the Chinese for the collapsed economy and more than twenty thousand deaths in the United States without distinguishing the Chinese government from Asian immigrants and workers here in the United States. Nonetheless, most of the migrants I got in touch with clearly have shown their favor to President Trump. Among them are both legalized citizens and undocumented migrants. After having conversations with them, researching over the internet, and observing their social media activities, I noticed that one common thing they shared was that many of their news sources were misinformation.
It was a nice day in early June, and the phrase II reopening in New York State had just begun. Julia, a family friend of mine who migrated to the United States twenty years ago, was driving on the 495 interstate highway to Flushing Main Street from Suffolk County to buy glass noodles and rice noodles. The trip was about one and a half hours, and there was not much of a view to look at because the road to Queens was quite empty besides ambulances and long trucks which were for cold chain transportations before the pandemic and were full of human corpses at that time. Julia was born in a small city in North-Eastern China, which was one of the most important industrial centers in the last century. Her parents were both government-employed workers as were almost every Chinese citizen at that time. She was born at the end of the cultural revolution and grew up in a relatively wealthy family.
“When I was your age, I was so popular because I can eat meat whenever I want. And also salt duck eggs,” Julia said when talking about her life before coming to the United States. “And my life was sweet. I didn’t have to worry about money or the future at that time because my father was a government employee, and I worked in a hotel as a receptionist before graduating from high school.” She didn’t talk much about the reason why she came to the United States twenty years ago with only $2000 and a one-way plane ticket since she already had a relatively good life in her hometown, but as she and all the people I interviewed mentioned, they were seeking a place where they could have fruits, meat, condoms, and a better life. Julia arrived in New York at the beginning of the 21st Century and lived in a small apartment at Flushing district in Queens with a friend. She started by working in a laundry shop and got her driver’s license before the enforcement of the REAL ID Act, which requires legal status when applying for driver’s licenses (dhs.gov). After working in a nail salon for years, she rented a small shop in Suffolk County and opened her own hair and nail salon. Julia legalized her identity by marrying a U.S. citizen, which cost her more than $100,000.
Our conversation in the car quickly shifted to the 2020 election, which seemed like everything other than the pandemic during the summer. I started by asking her whether she voted after she legalized her identity. “No. It’s none of my business,” She answered. When I was just about to ask a follow-up question about her opinion on President Trump and President Obama, she continued. “But I’m glad Trump won the election. You know, it’s lucky for you to come here during Trump’s presidency. You have no idea how messed up this country was before Trump was elected.” At first, I thought by ‘messed up’ she meant the Middle East situation. But I quickly understood that she meant the economy and refugee problems when she started praising the wall between the U.S. and Mexico border. Julia talked about how President Trump saved the economy after, in her opinion, President Obama destroyed it in the global economic crisis in 2008.
“He promised to boost the economy, and he did it,” Julia said regardless of the fact that the unemployment rate in the U.S just reached a record high of 14.7% in April, and New York City and Long Island counties just started reopening (bis.gov). I corrected her that former President Obama did not cause the 2008 economic crisis because the Lehman Brothers were bankrupted on September 25, 2008, while President Obama was elected in November 2008 and inaugurated in January 2009(Rauchway 2018). The economic crisis happened under former President Bush’s second presidency instead of former President Obama’s. “No. You are wrong. It was Obama’s refugee policy that caused the recession. I read it on the news. And you know, the economy got way better after Trump built the wall and stopped all the illegal immigrants from Mexico.” When I asked her where she read that news, “Just some WeChat Public Accounts,” She answered.
WeChat Public Account is a direct translation of its name in Mandarin. Other translations include self-media, subscription accounts, and WeChat official social accounts. Although the official translation uses ‘Official Accounts,’ this gives people the wrong impression that articles published on these accounts are all published by organizations or government agencies. However, the owner of these accounts can be all kinds of people and organizations, including government agencies, non-governmental organizations, news outlets, brands, professional writers, comic creators, soccer fan groups, individuals, etc. In general, everyone who has a certificated active WeChat account could apply for an Official Account. At the end of financial season four of 2019, there were more than 20 million Official Accounts compared to 1.15 trillion active users (stcn.com). Without any fact checks or information supervision, anyone is able to publish anything on WeChat Official Accounts except the opinions or news that could jeopardize national stability or are against the Chinese Communist Party’s political stands such as supporting Hong Kong or Tibet independence.
Like most of the people I got in touch with, Julia was not well-educated. Without finishing high school, she could read Mandarin and type it on a keyboard but not write simplified Chinese characters on a piece of paper. Even after twenty years working in the United States, she could speak fluent English but was still not able to read or write it. Her daily entertainment was watching Netflix and Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok, and calling her friends via Facetime. Her primary news sources are WeChat Official Accounts and her friends, including Ann Marie, who I also got in touch with during the summer.
Many first-generation undocumented and documented Chinese migrants who were born in poor families in China and are working and living among Chinese-speaking social circles are in similar problematic situations like Julia when the news they receive is limited to the public accounts that specifically target overseas undereducated working class in order to undermine their participation in politics and raise nationalism and racism ideologies because these migrants are not able to read real news articles that are written in English and tend to believe what their educated friends tell them. The false information on WeChat and other Chinese social media inside the Great Fire Wall is enhanced by their friends, and they also spread false information to other friends and acquaintances without any fact checks, which forms a cycle.
While I browsed all Official Accounts Julia often reads, many of them spreading pro-Trump right-wing misinformation, one account stood out. The direct translation of the account name is “Those Things in the UK,” which is owned by an individual who currently lives in London and has more than 12 million followers. The majority of this account’s content is pets and funny YouTube videos; however, it also publishes hyperboles about left-wing politicians, peaceful protests, and the Covid-19 pandemic almost every day. In fact, before the presidential election in 2016, they published several pro-Trump articles to attack Clinton with unverified or untrue information. Although the author provided three links from Daily Mail as references under the article “Hillary Clinton Escaped From FBI and Hackers but Lost to an Erotic Text,” these three articles of Daily Mail had nothing to do with Those Things in the UK’s article which accused the Clinton campaign team of being responsible or having a connection with several unnatural deaths of Trump supporters, which has no factual support inside or outside of the Great Fire Wall.
More recently, this account published an article with the title “The Riot is Out of Control in Philadelphia, USA, and People Only Rob on the Street… They Claimed to State Their Needs, But In Fact, They Were Looting A Burning House” on October 28, 2020, just before the presidential election. In this article, the author wrote “Everyone’s pocket was full and made them worth the trip,” when describing the chaos and robberies during the protest （Shierjun 2020). The author uses 40 out of 49 photos showing crushed glass and shop robberies, many of them from the same security footage, to give the readers the impression that what happened in Philadelphia was a riot for robbing shops. The article only mentions the reason for the protests in less than six lines after showing 27 photos of broken glass and shop robberies– Mr. Wallace, who has mental health problems, was shot by police while walking on the street because he was waving a knife. After reading the article, I conducted fact checks from both left-wing and right-wing news outlets and media and concluded that there was absolutely no evidence that the protest was an excuse for the robbery and that “Everyone’s pocket was full” after the protest (shierjun 2020). Although robbery and violent behaviors did exist, it was a relatively small number compared with the number of people who participated in the protests.
I contacted Julia shortly after the article was published. She complained that the protestors were “eating a lot while not willing to do anything,” in other words taking what did not belong to them and not working and that they were endangering the society and economy. I asked her for the source, and she sent me the link to the article above.“See, that’s how democrats spoiled them,” Julia commented on the protestors before hanging up the phone.
Accounts like “Those Things in the UK” are not rare inside the Great Firewall on social media, and they serve as both the source and confirmation of misinformation in Chinese undocumented migrants’ lives. In general, these accounts could be separated into two categories based on their article structure and content. The accounts of the first category write only information in their articles, or at least that’s what they seem like. Just like “Those Things in the UK,” these accounts find and translate short videos, speeches, and news articles outside the Great Firewall and translate them into Mandarin. They catch the trend on time and take screenshots of Twitter comments to show their objectivity as a news agency. They provide reference links at the end of the article to demonstrate that what they have published is not their stand but the point of view of the majority of American citizens and news outlets all over the world.
For people who can read English articles, one can find out that the ‘news articles’ these accounts have published have no fact or reliable source support and do not represent the majority of people and news outlets. Nevertheless, for Julia and millions of undereducated workers who are not proficient in English like her, the articles like “The Riot is Out of Control in Philadelphia, USA, and People Only Rob on the Street… They Claimed to State Their Needs, But In Fact, They Were Looting A Burning House” seem persuasive because Julia is not able to read nor has the time to check Twitter, major news outlets, and NGO data. Accounts like this use simple but inflammatory language and selected photos to attract undereducated workers in the United States like Julia and make them believe that the information in these articles is simple Mandarin translations of news outlets.
The other category of WeChat Official Accounts that spread misinformation to Chinese migrants is political opinion accounts. The owners of these accounts claim that they have adequate knowledge of political science and that they have carefully translated and reviewed their sources. Unlike the first category, these accounts publish the analysis and opinions of their owners rather than serving as a news platform. Instead of undereducated workers, these articles target Chinese migrants who have some English reading ability but aren’t proficient enough to read complicated articles and still use Chinese social media as their primary source of information. Ann Marie, a lady in her 50s, is one of the most loyal readers of the second category of Official Accounts.
Ann Marie came to the United States after the Tiananmen protest in 1989. After arriving in New York without a valid visa, she worked in restaurants and salons to support herself and her family in China. Unlike Julia who shared an apartment within Queens decades ago, Ann Marie was a public school teacher near Beijing. Recently, she was able to fill in the Covid-19 loan application on the U.S. Small Business Administration’s website merely with the help of Google translation. When I first met her this summer, Ann Marie was in a baby blue T-shirt and black jeans. She commented on the book I was reading about French printing techniques in the nineteenth century before we started our conservation. Ann Marie spoke slowly and with a clear logical structure when talking about why she supported President Trump and believed that President Obama had caused the crash of the economy. At first, she and Julia, two nail and hair salon owners, talked about their revenue difference in the past ten years.
“Before the Obama administration, we could spend however we wanted and still left more than $100,000 each year. We traveled to Florida, Las Vegas and brought Rolex. But after 2008, it was obvious that the money worthed less. We couldn’t spend that much and have a lot of savings at the same time.” When I pointed out that President Obama took office in 2009 after the economic crisis, Ann Marie said that she did not remember when the money started to be worthless, but “it was just that two years.” I then asked her what made her so sure that it was President Obama’s policies rather than a general inflation problem after the economic crisis, and why she believed President Trump could change the situation. “He is going to build the wall, and there will be fewer illegal immigrants. Then there will be fewer people consuming social security benefits. And I don’t have to pay that much tax more,” she answered. She then showed me the articles and short videos on WeChat groups and Official Accounts, which used professional terms like Dow Jones and S&P 500 but incorrectly. For example, one author uses a one-time increase of Dow Jones after the 2016 election to show that President Trump had done a good job saving the economy without mentioning the calculation process of the Dow Jones Index (Zuohailaoyu 2016).
Furthermore, the source of these opinions is mostly coming from Twitter bots and news websites without secondary confirmation. The second category of WeChat Official Accounts publishes their owner’s opinions mostly based on overseas Chinese Twitter users whose Twitter posts were not fact-checked, had no credibility, and were based on news from Twitter bot posts. However, many Twitter news bots are demonstrated as unreliable sources and contain misinformation produced by Russia-related agencies in the series of investigations on misinformation since the 2016 election by both scholars and the Council on Foreign Relations (Theohary and Fischer 2018). Therefore, since the news the authors commented on was misinformation in the first place, the opinions on WeChat Official Accounts serve as another kind of misinformation that affects educated Chinese migrants like Ann Marie.
For example, one of the popular accounts among Ann Marie’s friend circle, New York Jishiyu, published an article to accuse president-elect Joe Biden of cheating in the 2020 election by showing the evidence that several swing states stopped counting votes at 4 A.M., and all the votes counted after that were fake ballots created by the Biden-Harris campaign team (2020). It was also said that only republican observers were not allowed while the ballots were counted. The author wrote a whole passage of analysis about how the election of Biden and Harris will jeopardize democracy and freedom of speech of the United States because President Trump’s Twitter posts were censored. However, none of the evidence to support the arguments in the article is valid after fact checks. For example, workers in states like Nevada and Georgia stopped counting before they counted every vote to get some rest (No Melons Group 2020). Ann Marie, nonetheless, was persuaded by the article because she and her friends could not distinguish between reliable sources.
In addition to WeChat Official Accounts, younger generations like Yolanda, a mother of two children around her 30s, uses Weibo, a Chinese social media similar to Twitter, as her news source. Yolanda was born in a poor peasant family in the North East of China. She came to New York with her husband and two children during President Obama’s second term with a travel visa and overstayed. Right now, she works three jobs to provide for her family. When I first met her two years ago, I helped her translate her parking ticket. In return, she bought me breakfast to express her thanks. Yolanda complained about President Trump’s response when I went climbing with her in May. I recalled that she expressed her appreciation to President Trump two years ago, so I asked her whether she still appreciated President Trump. “Am I stupid? After all of these? My daughter is afraid of everything every day.” Yolanda said with strong emotions. She then talked about how she finally realized that President Trump’s policies did not benefit her family just months ago after she followed some new people on Weibo.
Before the pandemic began, Yolanda followed only pop stars and key opinion leaders who lived in the United States, among the latter group was the account “Sister Shi Gossip About American Politics.” The account owner, Sister Shi, often posted and reposted untrue content including how President Trump’s immigration policies would benefit Chinese migrants because there would be fewer refugees and illegal immigrants from Latin America to compete with Chinese migrants. And most of these accounts never post anything about racial discrimination and attacks on Asian Americans and Chinese immigrants. It was not until she followed other accounts that also discussed international politics like “No Melons Group” and developed some basic English skills that Yolanda realized that what she had seen before might not be the whole picture. After years of being in theUnited States, Yolanda just figured out that she was influenced by misinformation for all these years.
Yolanda is only one of the dozens of people I got in contact with who were misinformed by the key opinion leaders on Weibo. As the 1980s generation, young people tend to use Weibo as a main news source instead of cable news or news websites because of its timeliness and easy access to information (Hu 2020). As the second-largest social media platform with over 516 million monthly active users, Weibo could spread one piece of false information to tens of thousands of people in less than a day and make the misinformation trustworthy. For example, on January 22nd when the Covid-19 pandemic started in Mainland China, misinformation that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol could cure Covid was seen by at least 100,000 people （Wei et al. 2020).
At the same time, with no news fact checks but strict censorship, true information is either hard to see or is blocked. In January and February, news and posts about the seriousness of Covid-19 were constantly being blocked, including the post about the death time of Dr. Li, the whistleblower of Covid-19, even though multiple news outlets outside the Great Firewall including People’s Daily Twitter account already reported the death of Dr. Li (Buckley 2020). By using Weibo as their primary news source without proficient English skills to do fact checks on social media outside the Great Firewall, even though they can access these websites, Chinese migrants like Yolanda have hardships distinguishing between misinformation and news and therefore might form opinions based on untrue sources.
During my research, 1% of the interviewees claimed that their primary news source is cable news in the United States such as NBC, and the other 99% stated that either all or the majority of their news sources are Chinese social media platforms inside the Great Firewall, namely WeChat and Weibo. During each interview, I asked interviewees several questions that could be affected by popular misinformation on Chinese social media such as President Obama’s attitude toward illegal immigrants, President Trump’s attitude toward democratic movements in and around Mainland China, whether drinking alcohol could cure Covid-19, whether Covid-19 is a human-made bioweapon, and their opinions on Black Lives Matter movements in the United States in 2020. Each one of them replied with some degree of misinformation such as “President Obama accepted whoever came to the United States” and “The Black Lives Matter movement was organized by the Biden campaign team.”
Therefore, although undereducated undocumented or legalized Chinese migrant workers like Julia, Ann Marie, and Yolanda hold opinions that contradict their interests, it is partially inappropriate to simply assume that they are confused about their own interests. In most cases, they know what kind of policies would hurt their interest, and they tend not to support politicians who are likely to hurt them. However, the reason the interviewees support right-wing politicians is that they are not aware of the true policies and stands of the politicians in the United States, due to untrue sources. The interviewees expressed their pro-Trump opinions by using the misinformation on WeChat public accounts or Weibo accounts as proof and references. Unlike some Americans who only watch programs or read articles similar to their political stands, the only source many Chinese immigrants are able to read or find is misinformation created by public accounts due to their inefficiency in English. They interpret and analyze the news accurately and make decisions based on their interests. Therefore, it is not proper to simply classify them as President Trump’s supporters or people who vote or stand against their own interests because they are not aware of Republicans’ and Democrats’ policies in the first place.
In conclusion, this study looks at the possible reasons why some undereducated illegal or later-legalized Chinese migrant workers in the United States hold similar political opinions to right-wing politicians. This includes President Donald J. Trump who openly and repeatedly expressed dislike of illegal immigrants and problematic racist opinions toward the Chinese, which has led to increasing racist attacks against Asian Americans and Asian faces in general in the United States. After interviewing several undereducated Chinese migrant workers, I’ve concluded that misinformation on Chinese social media sites such as WeChat and Weibo, two major news sources for Chinese migrants, highly influence their political opinions because they are not able to read news directly from major news outlets in the United States. Without being well-informed, they are not aware of the true positions of the politicians. Therefore, some Chinese migrants who form opinions based on misinformation can not be simply categorized as right-wing politician supporters who are against their own rights.
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Interviews with Julia on May 31st, June 21st, and Oct 28th; with Yolanda on July 7th; with Ann Marie on June 21st.
Special thanks to all my interviewees.