Mar 23, 2021

Misinformation about COVID-19 planted a seed for online hate speech

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Anti-Asian hate crimes more than doubled in 2020.

Tuesday marks one week since the mass shootings in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six Asian women. Police have not labeled the attacks a hate crime. But we know that hate crimes against Asian Americans have been on the rise. Researchers at California State University, San Bernardino, looked at police data from 16 American cities and found that anti-Asian hate crimes more than doubled in 2020.

At the same time, online hate speech against Asian people has spiked. So as we think about these attacks, what do we know about online hate speech and how it translates to real-world violence? I spoke with Davey Alba, a tech reporter at The New York Times who covers misinformation. She has been following anti-Asian sentiment online during the pandemic. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Davey Alba, a tech reporter for the New York Times, who covers mis- and disinformation online.
Davey Alba (Photo courtesy of BuzzFeed News)

Davey Alba: It really started with a lot of the conspiracies and misinformation around when the coronavirus emerged. And that seeded the idea that the public should be suspicious of Asians. And with the latest surge in the last few months, it turned into something more nefarious. And some of the hate speech and posts that I’ve seen is really some terrible and vile stuff — racist speech, and a lot of it also included calls to violence against Asians.

Marielle Segarra: Have researchers been able to directly link those two things, hate speech and the calls to violence that we see online, and the actual violence that we’re seeing rise in the real world?

Alba: So what we do know is that the increase in volume of hate speech online is a statistical predictor of real-life violence. We’ve also seen that misinformation is linked to hate speech. For instance, there was a study that came out this month, and it found that users who adopted the hashtag #chinesevirus were far more likely to pair it with overtly racist hashtags. So you can kind of see that arc now of misinformation going into hate speech and going into real-world violence.

Segarra: Let’s talk about where this hate speech is popping up. Do we see different kinds of things depending on the platform?

Alba: Yes, we do. These posts are in different places online. As I mentioned, they’re in the most extremist corners of the internet. So there are some Telegram channels that I’ve seen that are dedicated to just making fun of Asians — and I’m kind of using a euphemism there. It’s much more vile than just making fun. They use slurs, they use memes glorifying violence against Asians, and they sort of make it into a joke where they’ll turn it into a cartoon, but I’ve seen cartoons of Asians being executed by hanging. I’ve seen posts of pictures from the My Lai massacre where American soldiers are stomping on Vietnamese people. And all of that stuff is glorified and pointed at as justified because people say this is rightful responses to the world having to deal with a pandemic that originated in China.

Segarra: I wonder what role the platform should be playing here. I know, for instance, Facebook has a policy to take down posts that pose imminent harm, but it seems like that could be hard to prove.

Alba: Exactly. And a lot of people who peddle misinformation know where the lines are. So they get right up close to it and use certain tricks to sort of wink at these racist ideas or to spread misinformation, but don’t quite cross the line. Sometimes, it’s not a straight line to harm, but a dotted one, and there’s stuff that skates really close to these notions that remain up and still contribute to this toxic conversation online.

Related links: More insight from Marielle Segarra

We can’t understand this moment without learning about the history of anti-Asian racism in America, including discrimination that was carried out by the government and written into law. The podcast “It’s Been a Minute” just did an episode on this history. And The Washington Post has an article about it too.

I talked earlier in the show about one measure of Anti-Asian sentiment — police data on hate crimes. But that doesn’t give us a full picture. Sometimes, these incidents aren’t reported to the police, or they’re not criminal in nature. The group Stop AAPI Hate — AAPI stands for Asian American Pacific Islander — created a website where people can report instances of assault and harassment in person and online. It’s received more than 3,700 reports in the past year. 

A student in Seattle wrote: “My friend was at school when her teacher was talking about coronavirus precautions. A few kids in the class made fun of her for having come back from Taiwan a few months prior and everyone moved away from her, making jokes that she was infected. Meanwhile, the teacher did absolutely nothing to intervene.”

And in the online world, someone in Boston wrote: “I received a random email message from someone I don’t know telling me to go back to China, blaming me for Chinese politics, calling Chinese ‘heartless robots’ and telling me America doesn’t need me to be part of the workforce.”

Someone else reported an Instagram profile for a fake restaurant with an Asian slur in the name and racist names for dishes. They said it was created by students at Colorado State University. The profile references the coronavirus. It is still up.

A recent survey found that young people are encountering more hate speech on social media than they did just two years ago — posts that are racist, sexist, homophobic. This comes at a moment when we’re spending an incredible amount of time on our phones and social media because of the pandemic. And you have to expect this language and vitriol to have offline consequences.

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