What the Lies and Misleading Narratives in the 2022 Midterm Elections Can Teach Us


What we observed

Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States. Unfortunately, as this demographic growth translates into growing political influence, bad actors are attempting to take this power away. During the 2022 midterm election cycle, mis- and disinformation meant to instill fear, undermine faith in electoral processes¹, and sow division flooded the timelines, mailboxes, and airwaves of Asian American communities nationwide.

This election cycle, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC paid careful attention to election narratives with messaging explicitly targeting Asian Americans. None of these tactics are new. Though the mediums by which these narratives spread look different — whether in the form of Chinese-language WeChat messages or Vietnamese-language YouTube videos — the divisive rhetoric at the heart of these messages has been used for decades. The majority of these false or misleading narratives can be segmented into three broad themes²:

1) Exploiting tensions and internal divides within the Asian American community

Despite Asian Americans being treated as a monolith, the umbrella term “Asian American” encompasses a wide swath of countries of origin, immigration status, ethnicity, religion, caste, class, and more. This diversity within the Asian American diaspora represents the rich culture and experiences that our communities bring, but unfortunately it also leaves room for intracommunity conflict, with bad actors capitalizing upon political animosity and differing lived experiences to stir up tensions within distinct diasporic communities.

Highly educated east or south Asian immigrants who came here through the current immigration system might, for example, be especially vulnerable towards disinformation regarding the term “illegal immigration” and immigration policy reform. Geopolitical tensions can also easily be manipulated. This midterm season, anti-China sentiment and Sinophobia fueled fearmongering campaigns seeking to label certain politicians as “communists” or “socialists.” Nationwide, bad actors employed the use of doctored images, out-of-context quotes, and other malicious tactics to draw misleading connections between politicians or political candidates and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), question the loyalty of these individuals to the United States, and compare COVID-19 safety measures enacted by politicians to strict lockdowns imposed by the CCP in mainland China.

2) Weaponizing current and historical traumas

These divisive tactics also weaponize historical traumas faced by members of the community, particularly first-generation immigrants. Bad actors strategically evoked images of the Chinese Cultural Revolution or communist rule in Vietnam to distort the policies of certain politicians and push the falsehood that communism is “taking over” the United States and invoke fear across our communities. These nefarious actors use slippery slope arguments to misleadingly frame student loan forgiveness plans, Hurricane Ian relief packages, and other government programs as “handouts” to bring the United States “closer and closer to socialism.” For those with sensitive memories relating to these events, this type of messaging is especially effective.

Current trauma is also weaponized. In the fall of 2022, Citizens for Sanity, a non-profit affiliated with Stephen Miller, spent millions airing advertisements that falsely attribute rises in anti-Asian hate to Democrats. These ads aligned with other messaging targeted at Asian Americans seeking to portray certain politicians as only caring about “non-Asian people of color” and “not taking Asian American issues seriously” as well as the dangerous framing of affirmative action as “anti-Asian hate” or “anti-Asian racism.” This represents a pernicious conflation of a policy meant to create equitable access to education for all students (affirmative action) with real suffering the community has faced (anti-Asian hate).

3) Driving wedges between the Asian American community and other communities of color

For decades, bad actors have utilized the “model minority” myth to pit Asian Americans against other communities of color. In the weeks leading up to the election, America First Legal, another Miller-affiliated organization, sent out thousands of flyers containing this sort of rhetoric, falsely bemoaning “anti-white” and “anti-Asian” discrimination in the form of policies like affirmative action and diversity hiring. Affirmative action was not on the ballot this election cycle. However, with the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in a case that could change admissions policies at universities nationwide just eight days before Election Day, bad actors used tactics like these flyers to misinform and manipulate Asian Americans about affirmative action right before they voted, potentially impacting how they felt about related issues or political candidates.

Anti-affirmative action disinformation falsely portrays affirmative action as hurting Asian Americans and uses this to justify getting rid of the policy; similarly, in rhetoric used by the aforementioned Citizens for Sanity Ads, rises in anti-Asian hate are used to rationalize increased policing and surveillance of predominantly black and brown communities. These messages stick because they exploit misconceptions about complicated, emotionally charged issues that are deeply personal for Asian Americans.

What we can take away

Broadly, all these messages are impressionable because they exploit genuine fears around marginalization and community safety; anxieties and fears are misdirected to help serve political agendas and uphold existing power structures.

As we look to future elections, media literacy and civic education will be crucial tools to help members of the community recognize sensationalized, purposefully divisive content when they see it. This will not be the last time Asian Americans are subject to mis- and disinformation that seeks to manipulate and divide. Intercommunity solidarity, better understanding of one another within the community, and access to credible, fact-checked in-language resources are vital to inoculating the Asian American community against falsehoods and striving towards greater collaborative strength.

¹Although Asian Americans were targeted with messages attacking the American democratic process and falsely arguing the existence of widespread electoral fraud, these messages usually took the form of falsehoods directly translated from English and did not contain any Asian-American specific targeted messaging.

²As outlined in the Asian American Disinformation Table’s landscape report, Asian American Disinformation Table (2022) “Power, Platforms, Politics: Asian Americans and Disinformation Landscape Report.” August 2022, www.AsianAmDisinfo.org

Advancing Justice — AAJC’s mis- and disinformation work focuses on studying and discussing how mis- and disinformation targeted at Asian American communities is distinct from the mainstream mis- and disinformation problem. This effort is part of the Telecommunications and Technology team, which seeks to help our diverse Asian American communities reap the benefits of technology while also protecting them from its potential harms.



Advancing Justice – AAJC
Advancing Justice — AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.