More than half of the Chinese-language “fake news” circulating within the Chinese American community is spread on WeChat. Now, a San Francisco-based nonprofit is trying to counter the fake news on the widely used app, as well as on Twitter and YouTube.
Enter PiYaoBa (辟谣吧), or “let’s fact-check it” in mandarin Chinese, which brings together misinformation from Chinese-language social media networks and presents viewers the facts.
Already, PiYaoBa has published 100 fact-checking articles and 91 misinformation alerts since its launch earlier this year, covering local issues in San Francisco and national issues across the country.
“The challenge has always been to try and make sure that our community has equal access to vision and decisions that will impact their lives,” said Vincent Pan, co-executive director of nonprofit and advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action, which launched PiYaoBa as the latest addition to its Chinese Digital Engagement program.
“Although the problem of misinformation has gotten broader attention, it has not really addressed how this challenge is both unique, and also especially difficult, in non-English-language spaces,” he said in a press conference, “The Growing Threat of Chinese-Language Disinformation,” organized by Chinese for Affirmative Action today.
Among all the platforms, misinformation is most prevalent on WeChat, which is used by virtually all ethnic Chinese. A total of 54.3 percent of these “fake news” stories (320 were identified) were published on WeChat between the period of April and mid-September this year, according to the PiYaoBa Disinformation Report launched today.
“There’s virtually no function to combat disinformation” on WeChat, said Christine Chen, co-founder and executive director of Asian Pacific Islander American Vote, in the same press conference.
PiYaoBa has touched on a variety of topics likely to stir up controversy in today’s changing political climate.
The headline of one article reads: “The crime rate increased after Chesa Boudin took office, but he’s emptied the jail in San Francisco? His parents were members of extremist groups?” The article in PiYaoBa examines each of these statements, explaining that many articles on Boudin were designed to heighten emotions and spread panic.
Such articles, the site explains, were particularly guilty of lifting facts out of context and presenting them in a sensationalized, half-truthful manner, particularly by exaggerating the increase in crime resulting from Boudin’s policies.
Among the “several issues we see overwhelmingly” being revamped into fake news are community safety, crime, drugs, anti-Blackness, and undocumented immigrants, said Jinxia Niu, Chinese Digital Engagement Program Manager of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
Other rumors they’ve covered that are closely intertwined with the community’s political engagement include: “California legislators propose legislation to release more prisoners whenever they are sick!” and “Are most of the people attacking Asians Black? Seven bitter facts about hate crimes against Asians.”
There are also many national-level cases, such as immigration: “Undocumented immigrants will be given priority in job placement?,” “Biden’s new policy: undocumented immigrants are free to ‘eat welfare’?” and “Banks are offering zero down payment and not checking credit scores for Black and Hispanic borrowers.”
Niu can still recall how startled she was in 2020, on the eve of the vote on Proposition 16, with which California voters rejected the return of affirmative action.
“At least a dozen WeChat groups” and “a dozen WeChat public accounts” were spreading the rumor that if the bill passed, Chinese would lose almost half of the seats in California’s universities, Niu said. The nonprofit, Chinese for Affirmative Action, tried to counter this, but failed. Yet its members noticed more and more parents seeking accurate information.
Pan said some sites and accounts are just trying to make money. Others, “really do have an agenda to try and convince Chinese Americans that values like diversity or inclusion, or addressing racial inequity, or gender inequity, are somehow dangerous for America,” he said.
Pan’s group found roughly 110 Chinese sites that continually and deliberately created misinformation. Most of these accounts, they found, are run by individuals who hold conservative positions, including the two largest media giants focused on Chinese Americans: Epoch Times Media Group (backed by Falun Gong), and Guo Media Group, founded in 2020 by billionaire Guo Wengui and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
“I think that there are always going to be individuals and groups who try to exploit a lack of equal information” in the community, said Pan.
For Niu, the impact of the proliferation of misinformation is already evident. “It’s because Chinese social media was dominated by these right-wing conservative narratives. Therefore, it created a social media environment that’s fostering a community that is becoming more and more conservative,” she said.
Chinese for Affirmative Action pioneered its Chinese Digital Engagement program in 2019 with three WeChat channels aimed at providing accurate information to the Chinese American community. A subsequent website, JusticePatch.org, seeks to do the same. So far, the WeChat channels have amassed more than 1.8 million views, and PiYaoBa.org has drawn more than 10,000 active readers from all over the country.
“More anecdotally,” said Pan, “we hear from many folks who are second-generation (immigrants) thanking us, because they see how their parents or other family members are subjected to fake news constantly. ”
Still, many might find the rigorously fact-checked articles available on the platform intrinsically less captivating than those with sensationalist headlines. “I think, for PiYaoBa, there’s still so much work to do,” Pan said. “Our hope is to be able to build a critical mass of community members who understand we have to fight back against fake news and right-wing lies.”