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Misinformation can further distort political messaging accepted by immigrants


As the election approaches, hot-button issues are dividing refugee and immigrant communities. And as NPR's Huo Jingnan reports, coming from somewhere else with its own history can influence how you might see politics in this country.

HUO JINGNAN, BYLINE: When I talked to Michelle Le and My-Linh Thai, I was struck by how similar they are.

MICHELLE LE: I'm able to come to this country, so I will protect it with all my life.

MY-LINH THAI: Oh, my God. This country get me a chance at life.

HUO: They're both in their 50s. Both came to America as child refugees fleeing Vietnam after the war. They both live in the Seattle area, went to the University of Washington and have friends in common. Here's My-Linh.

THAI: We became friends simply because she married to my friend.

HUO: Michelle campaigned for My-Linh when she successfully ran for state representative as a Democrat in 2018. But in the divisive year of 2020, Michelle gravitated towards the Republican Party. Immigration is a top issue for her, and she references how her own family entered the U.S.

LE: We came to this country. It took six months for the U.S. government to vet us before we were able to enter the country. Now our border is widely open for anybody, you know, with fentanyl, drugs.

HUO: While that's a popular talking point on the right, migrants crossing the border are not the main source of fentanyl entering the U.S. Michelle now sees Democrats' policies as akin to the communism she escaped. Her shift has created a rift between her and her children.

LE: So they get their information from the schools that are trying to push Marxism and socialism because they think that people can just be happy, you know, the rich helping the poor and everybody lives equally. That is not the reality.

HUO: Michelle was among the protesters at the Capitol on January 6, though she didn't enter the building. She's now campaigning for Republicans. My-Linh, who is running for reelection as a Democrat, frames things the other way around.

THAI: When our community is successful, the individual who live in that community have such good soil and good water and good amount of sun and good fertilizer to lift you up in the way that you, too, will be successful.

HUO: My-Linh has been an outlier in her generation. Many Vietnamese Americans who have fled the communist government have often backed Republicans. GOP politicians have accepted the community as they fled the war and are also seen as more anti-communist. On the other hand, younger generations who grew up in America are often more liberal.

Rachel Moran and Sarah Nguyen at the University of Washington analyzed Facebook posts during the 2020 election. They found that history makes some messages, including misinformation, more salient than others for Vietnamese Americans. Here's Moran.

RACHEL MORAN: You know, it's not a coincidence that the most significant spread of misinformation we found was mostly tied to narratives around communism.

HUO: Interpretations of facts are often filtered through a political lens. Take the word socialism. My-Linh told her aunt and uncle that Social Security and Medicare are socialist programs.

THAI: And they was like, that's not true. That's safety net.

HUO: Those kind of disagreements might lead to a conversation about what the word socialism means - in Vietnam, in America, both past and present. But the researchers found that what follows is often silence. That's the case for Michelle and My-Linh these days.

THAI: We show up at, like, really important cultural events for our community together. We greet each other, and then we went on and do our own work.

HUO: My-Linh says she is willing to talk to Michelle when she is ready.

Huo Jingnan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.