Here’s How Asian American Elders Get Dangerous Lies

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I was concerned when my father, 84, told me he was canceling his cable subscription. My mother had recently passed away and it pained me to imagine him sitting in silence when I wasn’t there, even without the sound of the television.

He and my mother had always watched the evening news on KTSF, the Chinese-language channel in the San Francisco Bay Area. What about the news? I asked. Don’t you want to know what’s going on?

“No problem,” he told me, “I watch YouTube.”

In recent years, many of us have become increasingly aware (and wary) of Big Tech AI-driven recommendation algorithms and how they fuel the spread of disinformation, such as the Big Lie (that the 2020 election was stolen) and that COVID – 19 is a hoax.

One group that is generally ignored or overlooked in these conversations is Asian Americans, particularly the older AAPI immigrant community. But as some scholars, reporters, and proponents of AAPI note, this demographic has increasingly become the target of disinformation campaigns. This has led to the formation of groups such as the Asian American Disinformation Table, a national coalition dedicated to addressing “issues of domestic and transnational misinformation and disinformation affecting Asian Americans.”

However, despite such efforts, the algorithms keep running and the disinformation continues to spread. For some of us, like myself—a first-generation Chinese American—this is a worrying trend, not only because of my love and concern for my father, but also because of its broader implications for the AAPI community.

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As, for example, Minh-Tu Pham wrote The Washington Post last year, Chinese Americans gave the Proud Boys more than 80 percent of the funds for medical expenses after the January 6 uprising, viewing their support as a rejection of communism and a belief that the Proud Boys were protecting American democracy. Never mind that the Proud Boys are a far-right, white nationalist organization that is vehemently anti-immigrant.

Following last week’s mass shootings in California’s Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay — both committed at the start of the Lunar New Year — a conversation has started in Asian-American communities about mental health among our elderly, and in the special men.

I, along with many of my peers, have struggled to process the horrific actions of the gunmen, who were 72 and 66 years old, as well as that of another Asian-American gunman in Laguna Hills, California in May 2022, who was 68 .

While there is no evidence whatsoever that media disinformation played a role in the shootings, we wonder why these men were so angry, so violent and so willing to take matters into their own hands.

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Again, let me be clear: I am not saying that these men were influenced in any way by the media. However, in light of larger conversations about mental health for our elderly, it is worth noting the levels of increased depression, anxiety and anger among this demographic, exacerbated by social isolation due to COVID, fear of anti-Asian violence and increased excitement as a result of polarized political discourse.

The last of the three is fueled by recommendation algorithms, such as YouTube’s, that allow viewers to easily review their suggestions, creating an echo chamber that confirms their worst suspicions and fears — whether it’s about the evils or virtues of the Chinese government, if President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi are communists, or if the 2020 election was rigged. Ideologically oriented Asian media outlets are ubiquitous on YouTube, and Asian elders circulate them with their peers through apps like WeChat and WhatsApp.

I’ve watched some of these videos with my dad – many are unhinged and histrionic, made to maximize viewer anxiety.

In the repeated exposure to these ideologies, suspicions become truth – grounds for anger, agitation, and distrust that in turn target those who don’t think the same way.

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At the risk of overgeneralization, I will say that Asian American senior citizens, especially those who communicate primarily in an Asian language, are limited in the range of media they consume.

For my parents (as well as my extended family) who immigrated to the US in the 1970s and 1980s, their main source of news has long been local Chinese-language channels such as KTSF or US-based Chinese-language newspapers such as the World Journal or Sing Tao daily. (One of the most popular Chinese-language newspapers today is The eras of the era, a far-right publication founded in 2000.) After a long day of work communicating in an adopted language, engaging and hearing the news in the native language is a source of comfort and security. Questioning media stories or the factuality of the reporting was not a problem; there were always more pressing matters, such as bills and education.

Now that he is retired, my father, who escaped communist China as a refugee, has much more time on his hands. So he has time to click video after video, for hours. I check on him every day and remind him to get off YouTube, talk to the neighbors, and maybe get some fresh air.

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