Divide to Conquer? How Authoritarian Regimes Use Wedge Narratives To Marginalize Diaspora Communities


As part of their foreign influence activities, authoritarian governments have actively sought to coopt diaspora communities, leading to increased suspicion and fear on the part of democratic societies. Diaspora-targeted propaganda is an important tool through which authoritarian home states attempt to shape diasporic attitudes and behavior. What informational narratives and propaganda strategies are being used to influence the diaspora? We argue that they selectively amplify narratives that drive a wedge between diaspora populations and host societies. To test this, we scrape and analyze content from the dominant social media platform for the Chinese diaspora, WeChat. To our knowledge, this represents the first large-scale data collection from WeChat, where tight political control has limited researcher access. We also apply two separate natural language processing methodologies - structural topic models and word embeddings - to measure the topical content and framing used in the WeChat corpus. We find that government narratives promote coverage of ethnic discrimination and racial violence, and in particular, frame these issues as explicitly targeting the diaspora. In the context of the United States, this entails heightened discussion of anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes. These narrative framings also increase around politically salient election periods. The authoritarian home state’s use of wedge narratives ultimately serves to isolate the diaspora from host societies, increase loyalty to the homeland, and decrease the legitimacy of democratic systems in the eyes of the diaspora. Political and social divisions within democracies may unfortunately play into the hands of powerful authoritarian rivals.

Patrick J. Chester
Patrick J. Chester
Postdoctoral researcher at the China Data Lab at UC, San Diego

Patrick Chester is a postdoctoral researcher at the China Data Lab at UC, San Diego who received his PhD from New York University’s Politics Department.