YouTube; Vietnamese
Illustration by Owi Liunic

The Rise of the ‘Vietnamese Rush Limbaugh’

YouTuber Nguy Vu is well-known among Vietnamese-American Republicans, but critics are worried about what he says online.
May 31, 2021, 1:51am

Streaming live from his Virginia Studio, YouTuber Nguy Vu has shoulder-length black hair and wears tinted dark-rimmed glasses. During a recent appearance, he pulled an image of anti-Asian hate crime protesters up on the screen.

“Why don’t they protest today when they killed ten white people?” Vu said in Vietnamese, referring to the Boulder King Soopers mass shooting in March. “This is all just propaganda for the Democrats!”

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A former radio host, Nguy Vu — AKA Kingradio — has been in the YouTube game since 2019. In an email exchange with VICE World News, Vu said his fans like to call him a Vietnamese Rush Limbaugh, after the late shock jock radio host that pioneered right-wing internet rhetoric. But with his booming and theatrical voice, penchant for conspiracy theories, and ads for own-brand miracle cream, Vu is perhaps more of a Vietnamese Alex Jones.

Though hardly as well-known as the far-right conspiracy theorist, Vu is a big name among Vietnamese American Republicans, the only major Asian ethnic group that had a net favorability rating for Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, according to the Asian American Voter Survey

Over email, Vu was friendly and polite, far removed from the pantomime villain he plays online. He explained that, as a Vietnamese refugee who came to America by boat and fled a Communist regime, he wanted to show the world what a craving for freedom looked like. Since arriving in the U.S., Vu has tried his hand at being a musician, a writer, and, for the last 25 years, a radio host, having worked for Little Saigon Radio in California before striking out alone in Virginia. But none of these careers landed the following that Vu has now found online.

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Since firing up his YouTube channel, Vu’s become notorious among first- and second-generation Vietnamese Americans, who watch with concern as their parents consume videos containing misinformation and conspiracy theories. Videos that were removed by Vu after receiving strikes on his YouTube channel were reuploaded by one Vietnamese misinformation researcher to show the damaging impact of Vu’s rhetoric.

They show theories like Mel Gibson exposing an underground Hollywood pedophile ring, and Bill Gates creating a COVID-19 vaccine to control the U.S. and, eventually, the world. When one of his critics, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, denounced Vu online for spreading misinformation, he called for his followers to “take pestle and beat her buck teeth.” 

When asked about the specific videos, Vu declined to comment on whether he promotes conspiracy theories, or whether he spreads misinformation. He said that he didn’t remember promoting violence against Nguyen, either, but added, “My job is reporting news and removing parasite people like her.”

With almost 100,000 subscribers, each of his hour-long streams can rake in tens of thousands of views, but his following doesn’t stop there. Vu has organised pro-Trump rallies, where he encourages his aging followers to remove their masks or, like a naughty school kid, be left on the bus. Vu’s rallies crescendoed on January 5th, the day before the Capitol riots, when he rallied fans with a bull horn on what was called, “King team Trump day 9”. Though his followers were seen with Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman”, at the Capitol, Vu claimed that he was not in DC on the day of the riot.

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The last few years have seen an increase in the ageing Vietnamese diaspora turning to YouTube, Facebook and messaging apps to get their news, as mainstream U.S. media outlets don’t align with their political leanings or broadcast in their first language. Republican Facebook pages in Vietnamese, like TIN NÓNG HOA KỲ (US Hot News) and Những Người Yêu Mến Donald J.Trump (Lovers of Donald J. Trump) can pull in tens of thousands of fans.

Though traffic declined when Trump lost the election, with some listeners likely tired of the same old material, hosts simply shifted their rhetoric to face masks and COVID-19. Then, they took on anti-Asian hate crimes. 

In late March, shortly after the Atlanta shooting that killed eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent — Vu began to pepper his theories with a suggestion that the trend was cooked up by Democrats.

Though anti-Asian bigotry has long been a fact of life in the U.S., researchers and advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic, along with former president Trump’s “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” remarks, fueled an increase in targeted hate crimes by around 150% in the last year. Stop AAPI Hate, an organisation that monitors hate crime against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, released a report in early May showing 3,000 reports of violence against the AAPI community in March 2021 alone – 8.8% of which were aimed at Vietnamese American citizens.

AAPI reports range from racial slurs, to physical assaults and hate speech online. More recent attacks that occurred after the release of the report include two Asian women, one 63 and the other 84, who were stabbed in early May while waiting for a bus, and four attacks on Asian people in New York, one of which involved a hammer.

But denial of anti-Asian bigotry within Vu’s videos didn’t come as a shock to his critics either. For a long time, Boomer influencers like Vu have been sending QAnon-like conspiracies out into cyberspace for older Vietnamese Americans to consume. 

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To combat the rhetoric of Vu and his peers, younger Vietnamese Americans have taken up the mantle to protect their elders from misinformation. In the last two years, various organisations and independent monitors have sprang up to inform listeners and remove videos by reporting them to YouTube, though this has yielded mixed results.

One of these independent monitors, Nick Nguyen, a research lead of Viet Fact Check, managed to see the removal of Vu’s video questioning anti-Asian violence after an email to YouTube, though he hasn’t had much luck since. Another monitor who goes by Fake News Cops online, but preferred to be identified simply as “Peter” for fear of possible retribution from far-right groups, helped to find and translate many of the YouTube monologues that appear in this story. Peter has been flagging Vietnamese-language videos to YouTube for months, but said his attempts to see the removal of videos have also been hit and miss.

But it’s not just independent organisations and online vigilantes grappling with this issue. Rachel Moran and Sarah Nguyen at the Information School and University of Washington started looking into the spread of misinformation from Vietnamese American groups earlier in the year, following the presidential election. They noticed that, while extensive research had been made into misinformation in English, little effort had gone into understanding how misinformation proliferates in various diaspora communities.

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Nguyen started to monitor communities on Telegram and WhatsApp. Here, she noticed a similar rhetoric applied to the Stop Asian Hate protests that mirrored the language used in the Black Lives Matter protests a year earlier. “It’s the same memes and the same videos reshared again and again,” Nguyen said. 

YouTube’s attempts to counter misinformation led the company to introduce “information panels”, which will pop up when searching for, or watching videos related to topics that are prone to misinformation, like COVID-19 and the moon landing. These provide information from independent, third-party partners in an attempt to give a more rounded understanding to the subject. 

But critics say that these panels, which are either in English or Spanish, prove to be of little value to communities that speak other languages. YouTube claimed that its approach to addressing misinformation is global, and applies across all languages. 

“We remove content that violates our Community Guidelines, raise authoritative content, and reduce recommendations of borderline content in every market we operate. When it comes to violative videos, YouTube has more than 20,000 people around the world, including those with Vietnamese and non-English language expertise, working to detect, review and remove content that violates our policies,” said YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez over email.

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This has, to an extent, worked. According to YouTube, Vu has received two strikes against his channel, and a third would lead to a permanent ban. 

But Nick Nguyen, the research lead of Viet Fact Check, thinks more needs to be done to acknowledge misinformation in languages other than English. After all, this is an issue playing out in some cases within a half-hour drive of YouTube’s offices, at his home in Palo Alto, or in San Jose, with the largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the country.

“They just have no excuses,” said Nick Nguyen. “This is just one more example of discrimination against non-English speakers in the U.S.”

“This is just one more example of discrimination against non-English speakers in the U.S.”

In his exchanges with VICE World News, Vu appeared to backpedal on some of his remarks and said he is no longer so quick to deny the attacks on Asian-Americans. “I think the crimes on Asians are really bad and I condemn those crimes,” Vu said, before adding several caveats.

“But many people use those for different purposes, calling for fraud donations and many other frauds that use Asian hate as a purpose.”

Vu continued to explain his hot take on the situation. He said that the Asian community is blessed to live in this “free country”; that these crimes are between individuals, not an entire community, and that, though “random” may not be the right word for the situation, he believed it was something in that ballpark. 

“In the end, I don’t want to take sides,” said Vu. “My audience knows and appreciates that I help them to understand what is happening in this country.” 

Follow Ashley Lampard on Twitter.