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Vietnamese diaspora in Seattle are tackling misinformation at home

In 2020, the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington took a look at misinformation being spread online about voting in person and by mail. They found a surprising number of social media posts in Vietnamese.

After collecting information across sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Post Doctoral fellow Rachel Moran and Sarah Nguyễn, a Ph.D. student, began having conversations about how Vietnamese people navigate their information environments.

For Nguyễn, the conversations ahead of the research were already personal.

Growing up Nguyễn said her family hardly discussed politics. A lot of that changed in 2020 against the backdrop of Covid-19 and the George Floyd protests. At that time, Nguyễn found out that her mother got a lot of news via Vietnamese YouTube videos, programs that were in Vietnamese and led by other Vietnamese people.

The information was egregious, she said.

And so, when the 2020 election rolled around, Nguyễn convinced her mom to register to vote for the first time. That process opened up a whole new medium and channel of communication.

Nguyễn and her mom spent three to four hours combing through YouTube videos to better understand policies and candidates. She wanted to use a website her mother was already comfortable with.

“I found out that it was actually pretty interesting to see how people like my parents and myself take in political information,” she said.

Nguyễn and Moran teamed up to conduct research that explores how misinformation spreads in the Vietnamese community. Part of the research meant combing through content online, but they also relied on focus group discussions.

They asked different generations of Vietnamese Americans to speak to one another in small groups. They asked how each person got their information, how they judged it to be trustworthy and what they do when they or a family member come across misinformation.

The emotional burden that misinformation puts on a family can be incredible. Moran said that the impact of navigating misinformation with family is hardly looked at across academic literature.

“A lot of our conversations in our focus groups revolved around the sort of emotional side of misinformation, and then the toll it took on the family level,” Moran said.

The information breakdown spread across language and media. Different generations deemed certain media more trustworthy than others.

For older generations, Moran said that many were more likely to trust more personality driven content. Whereas younger generations would prefer sites they may have learned about in college.

“So lots of differences within language, but also within media diets that tend to cement these divides that make it really difficult to have conversations at the dinner table with your parents or your aunts and uncles or grandparents about politics and more contentious issues,” Moran said.

Nguyễn said many Vietnamese Americans have not been able to work through the trauma of being a refugee or an immigrant. She said that many endured a lot and consumed a considerable amount of propaganda about the U.S. and Vietnam during the war.

As a result, Nguyễn said that they found many elder Vietnamese Americans have difficulty navigating debates and ideologies, such as defining communism versus socialism.

But it is more complicated than a memory or an experience.

Nguyễn points to transnational conversations between Vietnamese diaspora and family in Vietnam, the continued relationship between Vietnam and China and interdependency between the two countries.

Across generations, the Vietnamese diaspora are navigating a lot of history and present reality.

“The U.S. is filled with a bunch of anti-Chinese rhetoric and anti-communist rhetoric,” Nguyễn said. “It's a lot more complex than just being pro- or anti-communism. There's a lot of historical grounding.”

Moran adds that even fact checking misinformation can brush up against arguments about communism. She said Viet Fact Check, a volunteer-led project that fact checks articles and translates them into Vietnamese, is not always trusted.

“In our focus groups, people would share that they had given their parents an article from Viet Fact Check. And they, their parents would say, ‘Oh, no, they're communist,' or "They're socialists,’ as a way of shutting down the conversation,” Moran said.

Nguyễn and Moran hope to move forward with more research. The two want to conduct workshops with local organizations like Friends of Little Saigon. Their hope is to hear more from Vietnamese communities across the nation and find out what’s working.

“The heart of the project is trying to understand what makes misinformation sticky,” Moran said. “What makes it stick with people and help shape their worldview or their decision making around elections.”

Hear the full segment by clicking the audio above.