Immigrants and Refugees Vulnerable to Fake News, Misinformation

The Internet and social media have solved the problem of limited foreign-language news sources for immigrants and refugees in the country. But in many cases, they present a whole new set of issues including misinformation, both intentional and unintentional.

In the United States, while fake news and other forms of disinformation are major problems, we still have a generally credible press. But many countries, especially those that were or continue to be under authoritarian governments, often lack an accountable media. Because of the sway of official propaganda that has stifled critical thinking regarding the media or the lack of journalists trained in ethical reporting, sensationalist—and often outright false stories–often get taken as truth.

A viral fake news article that spread throughout the Philippines.

This lack of accountability from foreign press sometimes negatively affects their respective expatiate communities in America as well. Social media and the internet makes it much easier for these groups to access news from back home compared to the past. However, biases, including prejudices and often hatred can carry over here locally in the U.S. The desire to read news in one’s own language often creates a media bubble, one that can develop these attitudes even if they weren’t there before coming to the U.S. Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean:

You visit a site often because you like the content. But when your go-to website for news from back home starts blaming a certain ethic group for problems back home, you begin to spot similar stories on your Facebook feed. The comments section of a post starts filling up and the article goes viral. The social network knows you enjoys articles from the site and now senses that this particular issue has gained your attention. In a way that exaggerates the impact of a perceived problem with said ethnic group, related stories increasingly crop up and Facebook starts highlighting the comments of people that echo the sentiment of these articles.

Moreover, it’s in Facebook’s interest to keep you clicking. It rarely muddies the waters with posts offering opposing views that could discredit the site you regularly visit Facebook to access.

Moreover, it’s in Facebook’s interest to keep you clicking. It rarely muddies the waters with posts offering opposing views that could discredit the site you regularly visit Facebook to access. This is an issue everywhere, of course. But with countries where there are both a limited media literacy in their expatriate communities and a lack of accountable media from their home countries, this problem is more acute.

Interestingly, social media and the internet have also not replaced word-of-mouth. Instead, it has can spread through communities even quicker. Take the recent flight of tens of thousands of Haitians into Canada. It was triggered by a viral WhatsApp message in Haitian Creole that falsely claimed that Canada was encouraging Haitians to apply for residency and would even cover the fees. No one knows where the message originated, but since it was passed along, from trusted person to trusted person, many people acted on the “offer.”

A text message that circulated around the South Asian communities of Jersey City, NJ falsely claimed there were immigration raids.

It’s entirely possible that someone misunderstood an original announcement. I wonder however if this message could have been the work of trolls preying on the desperation of Haitians who now face deportation. Similarly, these—let’s be honest—terror tactics have increasingly targeted many Hispanic communities, especially isolated ones. They’ve been terrorized by Spanish-language fake news—spread by social media and word of mouth—about immigration raids that originated from anti-immigrant groups. Both these cases illustrate how easy it can be for outsiders to take advantage of tight-knit groups and their dynamics of mutual trust.

It should be noted that I don’t want to portray the members of these communities who fall for misinformation as particularly uneducated or gullible. Again, Americans are just as vulnerable to fake news and other forms of misinformation, whether fake news or a misheard rumor from a friend. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve made clear that immigrants and refugees face additional and unique dangers different from what the general American population faces regarding fake news and rumors.


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