I was concerned when my father, 84, told me he was canceling his cable subscription. My mother had passed away recently, and it pained me to imagine him sitting in silence when I wasn’t there, without even the sound of the television.
He and my mom had always watched the evening news on KTSF, the Chinese-language station 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.
A group generally ignored or overlooked in these conversations are Asian Americans, in particular the elderly AAPI immigrant community. Yet as some scholars, reporters, and AAPI advocates point out, this demographic has increasingly become the target of disinformation campaigns. This has led to the formation of groups like the Asian American Disinformation Table, a national coalition devoted to addressing “issues of domestic and transnational misinformation and disinformation impacting Asian Americans.”
Despite such efforts, however, the algorithms continue to churn and the disinformation keeps spreading. For some of us, such as myself—a first generation Chinese American—this is a worrisome trend, not just due to my love and concern for my dad, but for its wider implications for the AAPI community.
For example, as Minh-Tu Pham wrote in The Washington Post last year, Chinese Americans gave the Proud Boys more than 80 percent of the funds for medical costs following the Jan. 6 insurrection, 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’s vehemently anti-immigrant.
Following the mass shootings this past week in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay in California—both perpetrated at the start of the Lunar New Year—a conversation has emerged in Asian Americans communities around mental health amongst our elders, and in particular, men.
I, alongside many of my peers, have struggled to process the horrific actions of the shooters, who were ages 72 and 66, as well those of another Asian American shooter in Laguna Hills, California in May 2022, who was 68.
While there is no evidence whatsoever that media disinformation played a part in the shootings, we are wondering why these men were so angry, so violent, and so willing to take matters into their own hands.
Again, let me be clear: I am not saying these men were influenced in any way by the media. However, in light of larger conversations around mental health for our elders, it’s worth noting levels of increased depression, anxiety, and anger amongst this demographic, exacerbated by social isolation due to COVID, fear of anti-Asian violence, and increased agitation due to polarized political discourse.
The last of the three is being fueled by recommendation algorithms, such as YouTube’s, which allow viewers to readily view their suggestions, creating an echo chamber that confirms their worst suspicions and fears—whether about the evils or virtues of the Chinese government, if President Joe Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are communists, or that the 2020 election was rigged. Ideologically-oriented Asian media outlets are ubiquitous on YouTube, and Asian elders circulate these with their peers on apps like WeChat and WhatsApp.
I’ve watched some of these videos with my dad—many are unhinged and histrionic, crafted to maximize fear in viewers.
In the repeated exposure to these ideologies, conjecture becomes truth—grounds for anger, agitation, and mistrust that, in turn, is directed at those who do not think the same way.
At the risk of overgeneralization, I will say that Asian American elders, especially those who primarily communicate 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 U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, for a long time their primary source of news was local Chinese-language stations like KTSF or U.S.-based Chinese-language newspapers such as the World Journal or Sing Tao Daily. (One of the most popular Chinese-language newspapers today is The Epoch Times, a far-right publication founded in 2000.) After a long day’s work spent communicating in an adopted tongue, engaging and hearing the news in one’s native language is a source of comfort and safety. Questioning media narratives or the facticity of the reporting was not an issue; there were always more pressing concerns, like bills and child-rearing.
Now that he’s retired, my father, who escaped Communist China as a refugee, has a lot more time on his hands. So he’s got time to click video after video, for hours at a time. I check on him every day, reminding him to get off YouTube, go talk to the neighbors, and maybe get some fresh air.