Fighting Fake News with Immigrant Stories

The Perennial Plate aims to change peoples' minds about immigrants and refugees through storytelling that breaks through the red-blue divide.

Faces & Visions, Food Justice

As the election results started trickling in last November, Daniel Klein started thinking about how he could make a difference. He knew that whatever he did would likely involve filmmaking. Since 2009, he and his wife, Mirra Fine, have produced the Perennial Plate, whose weekly episodes explored sustainable eating through the lens of a variety of food professionals, like a Sri Lankan tea farmer or a Spanish duck farmer producing humane foie gras.

The show was a success, earning a robust following and two James Beard Awards. But after the election, Klein wanted to reach a different audience: “How do we not just make these films to make ourselves feel good?” he asked himself. “How are we actually going to make them effective in changing hearts and minds?”

As Klein read election post-mortems, one thing kept sticking out. Many pundits seized upon fake news on Facebook as a major factor in President Trump’s unexpected victory—a popular Wall Street Journal graphic demonstrated the schism between news stories that appeared on liberal newsfeeds (pieces on how much undocumented immigrants contribute in taxes, “The Best Science Shows That Guns Do Not Save Lives”) and their conservative counterparts (stories on why Canada’s welcome of Muslim immigrants is a bad idea, a “GUN CONTROL FAIL”).

Klein had an idea. What if he and Fine harnessed the power of Facebook’s targeted advertising, a key ingredient to so-called “fake news,” and used it for good?

perennial plate

The Perennial Plate team, from left: James Klein, Mirra Fine, Daniel Klein and Hunter Johnson.

That’s the idea behind their new project, “Resistance Through Storytelling.” Klein, Fine, and filmmaker Hunter Johnson plan to create short documentaries about five different immigrant or refugee families across the United States, centered around a cross-generational family dinner where each member discusses their immigration experience. The team will then distribute the films through Facebook’s hyper-stratified targeting options, aiming for moderate voters in swing states—selecting, say, people who live in Wisconsin and like the Packers—to combat what Klein calls the “anti-immigration echo chamber” in some newsfeeds.

“Almost every undocumented immigrant [coming] to this country is just looking for a better life, and refugees—who suffer more than pretty much anybody on the planet—are also looking for that opportunity,” he said. “We want people to think about how we’re all connected in the United States, and stray from the policies the government is putting in place that are pulling us apart, rather than bringing us together.”

Almost every culture has a tradition of family meals, Klein points out. “By telling these personal, beautiful and inspiring stories, I think there’s an opportunity to get someone to have a little different perspective on one family or a group of people or culture,” he said.

It’s an ambitious project. Klein and his team are asking $50,000 from their Kickstarter: half for the filmmaking and half for their Facebook advertising budget. They’ve currently raised more than half, but still need to raise the rest before their deadline on April 27. It’s a more expensive and overtly political venture than the Perennial Plate, but Klein believes it’s worth it to to break up newsfeeds featuring the same narrative. That homogeneity in news sources is what got us into this mess, he says.

The breakdown of how the team will spend their Kickstarter funding.

“When you are in a bubble, you tend to stick with the people around you, with the influences you have,” he said. “If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, [it’s] a constant bombardment of ideas that ring true to what I already believe instead of trying to expand my horizons.”

Klein isn’t sure what families he’ll be featuring. He’s looking into families in California, in places like the Bay Area, to get the perspective of families living in sanctuary cities. Klein and Fine live in Minnesota, home to the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the U.S., and they’d like to show how Trump’s travel ban and deportation threats (ICE currently plans to deport about 4,000 Somali immigrants) are affecting the population. The project’s aesthetics will likely change and shift over time, but there’s one thing that Klein is already sure of: the tone of the films.

He doesn’t want to play the part of the smug liberal, lecturing people about how they should vote. His main goal, he says, is to show viewers that immigrants share the same traits that Americans, particularly conservative Americans, value: things like hard work, loyalty, and family. There are lots of people who have never met an immigrant or refugee, whose opinions on immigrants are shaped by cable TV pundits or Trump’s preoccupation with crimes committed by immigrants. The Perennial Plate team aims to present immigrant families as just another neighborhood family, one who bickers and burns food and laughs together the same way the viewer and their family does.

“I want people to develop a human connection with someone that they might not normally have,” Klein said. If you’ve never met an immigrant from Somalia or Mexico, and all you know is that they’re committing crimes and taking our jobs, Klein hopes his films might change your attitude. “Suddenly you see a film [and] you really like this person’s personality, and just thinking a little bit differently about [immigration], that’s all we can really hope for. We hope that spirals into a different way of thinking about the way our government approaches those groups of people.”

“Change is oftentimes pretty vague,” Klein added. “For us, it’s about doing the little piece that we can, and in our case, what we can do is tell stories. And stories are very powerful.”

This article originally appeared on Bay Area Bites.

Photos courtesy of The Perennial Plate.

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