“Indian Americans are regularly targeted with false and misleading information that is supposed to elicit emotional responses,” said Inga Kristina Trauthig, Head of Research, Propaganda Research Lab at University of Texas in Austin, USA.
As the number of Indian-American candidates in the race for the upcoming 2024 US Presidential elections has increased, so has the mis/disinformation targeting the Indian diaspora community as well as other minority communities in the US.
From racist mailers or falsehood campaigns based on dividing diasporic communities, The Quint's WebQoof takes a deep dive into the misinformation campaign targeting the diaspora communities ahead of the elections.
Minorities and Misinformation
Social media saw propaganda posts by pro-Hindutva groups functioning in the US aiming to mobilise support for former President Donald Trump for "Hindu survival."
The Asian-American Disinformation Table 2022 identified misinformation based on narratives such as using Asians as ‘wedges’ against other communities of colour, exploiting internal divides and hierarchies within Asian communities and weaponising current and historical traumas.
“Two of every three Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) voters agree that they have "noticed a significant amount of misinformation targeting the AAPI community recently," said Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, Communications Director at North Carolina Asian Americans Together (NCAAT).
This was based on a survey carried out by NCAAT ahead of the 2023 municipal polls in North Carolina.
He also added that during last year’s midterm elections, AAPI voters received mailers and radio advertisements.
“This mail piece repurposes an old tactic historically used to drive a wedge between Asians and other racial communities of colour in the United States,” Patel-Nguyen said.
“Indian Americans are regularly targeted with false and misleading information that is supposed to elicit emotional responses. For example, misinformation about attacks on Indian-American college students that are blamed on deteriorating local security, which is further blamed on politicians," Trauthig added.
WhatsApp Could Be a “Basin of Misinformation”
Researchers believe that closed messaging applications with end-to-end encryption, like WhatsApp, could be a “basin of misinformation”.
“With Indian-American communities who use platforms like WhatsApp, combating misinformation is even harder because common techniques – such as labelling false content or taking down content that you see on Twitter and Facebook – are not possible with WhatsApp. Fact-checkers and those interested in countering misinformation must get creative with possible solutions,” Sumitra Badrinathan, Assistant Professor at the American University, said.
The University of Texas’ Centre for Media Engagement 1,544 adult WhatsApp users between April and June 2022. They also questioned Indian Americans, who form a large immigrant group of eligible US voters. The survey revealed that "70.6 percent Indian Americans use WhatsApp often and daily (below table reports use of apps ‘several times a day’)."
Among the surveyed groups, 37.3 percent of Indian Americans revealed that apart from social media apps, WhatsApp was a platform where the least accurate political stories were shared.
Amongst its key functions, 77.6 percent of Indian Americans used WhatsApp for personal communication and 21.7 percent for news.
It also revealed that Indian Americans received the following narratives on WhatsApp about COVID-19:
COVID-19 is a Chinese biological warfare weapon (39.9 percent).
Homeopathy prevents COVID-19 (31.8 percent), COVID-19 doesn’t actually exist (26.4 percent).
Some people are deliberately sneezing to spread COVID-19 (26.1 percent).
Joe Biden is a socialist or communist (18 percent).
(Data sourced from the University of Texas at Austin, Center for Media Engagement, Moody College of Communication)
The Harvard Misinformation Review on Mis/Disinformation against diasporic groups in the USA quoted a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
It stated that several messages circulated in "over 5,000 Indian WhatsApp groups found anti-Muslim messages are shared faster, wider, and remain active for longer than other fear speech messaging. These messages are not only circulated within the subcontinent, they are shared amongst Indians globally."
Patel-Nguyen said, “Much of the false information that spreads through AAPI communities is through social media and encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp. The problem is, encrypted channels become echo chambers for misinformation because even the platform cannot see the messages to moderate them”.
A spokesperson for WhatsApp pointed us to online resources about WhatsApp’s , according to which the platform is working at preventing coordinated misuse of WhatsApp and ensuring it empowers users to address misinformation by making certified fact-checkers available on WhatsApp.
“Over 50 fact-check organisations are connected with users to provide verified information,” the blog said.
“WhatsApp is the only messaging service that has constrained viral sharing on our service by limiting forwards. Our limits imposed on ‘forwards’ have reduced the spread of ‘highly forwarded messages’ on WhatsApp by over 70 percent, ” the spokesperson added.
Impact of Misinformation on Voter Behaviour
“While misinformation could impact voting behaviour, it is difficult to scientifically separate its effects from other allied concepts, such as propaganda,” Badrinathan said.
“They (Indian Americans) can become disenchanted and frustrated with the electoral process due to increasing infiltration of political information into what used to be non-political WhatsApp chats,” Trauthig added.
She added electoral misinformation can also inhibit folks from voting if false instructions are shared.
Patel-Nguyen also said, "Though AAPIs are the fastest-growing racial demographic in the US and in North Carolina, candidates have not seriously engaged our communities." He urged politicians to engage the growing AAPI political bloc, especially in swing states like North Carolina.
With the USA's next election in 2024 and Indian-American candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy running for president, misinformation may rise. Professor Badrinathan opined, "As the number of Indian-American candidates on both sides of the aisle increase, we should naturally expect to see persuasion campaigns try to sway Indian-American votes. Some of these campaigns can also include falsehoods."
Patel’s NCAAT is combating misinformation by forming rapid response teams, working with partner organisations and media, and monitoring campaigns to enable a timely response.
Inga applauded the steps taken by organisations in States, such as Indian American Impact (IAI). “IA Impact has been fact-checking programs or collaborating with researchers on developing tools that can pick up viral misinformation on WhatsApp to work on debunking those stories,” she said.
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