As the coronavirus spreads, so does online racism targeting Asians, new research shows

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“The words are like a virus,” said Joel Finkelstein, director of the Network Contagion Research Institute, a New Jersey-based nonprofit group that tracks hate speech online. “That leads to actions that are visible.”

Finkelstein’s group, which reports its findings as alerts to government officials, documented a rise of conspiracy theories featuring both anti-Chinese sentiment and words such as “bioweapon” on 4chan’s notoriously racist “Politically Incorrect” message board and, to a lesser extent, on Twitter, according to a white paper published Wednesday evening.

The white paper detailed “acute increases in both the vitriol and magnitude of ethnic hate” and said they fueled the spread of misinformation from remote corners of the Internet into the mainstream. The white paper also noted that an Instagram post last week called for shooting “every Asian we meet in Chinatown, that’s the only way we can destroy the epidemic of coronavirus in NYC!” (Instagram removed the post as a violation of its policies.)

A second research group, featuring an international team of scholars from China, Cyprus, Italy, Germany and the United States, published separate research Wednesday evening showing that anti-Chinese slurs on 4chan grew sharply at key moments in the pandemic. It also found less pronounced rises in hostile references to China and Chinese people on Twitter.

Both research groups, which include some overlapping members, charted rises in these slurs near the peak of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began, and again last month when President Trump used the term “Chinese Virus” on Twitter.

The research does not seek to evaluate whether Trump’s comments caused the surge of ethnic slurs on 4chan, but “that was a legitimizing moment,” said Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University who studies online hate. He was a co-author for both papers published Wednesday.

Beyond the Internet, anti-Chinese rhetoric already has had real-life implications in the United States, despite warnings from experts that prolific use of such language could endanger millions of Asian Americans.

“When it becomes normalized … it dehumanizes Chinese and Asians,” said Russell Jeung, chair of San Francisco State University’s Asian American studies department. “It’s like equating them to a face mask and equating them to the disease, so it’s easy to scapegoat and attack them.”

People who look Chinese, particularly those wearing masks, are at increased risk of experiencing the same discrimination faced by Muslims wearing turbans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Jeung, who recently started tracking bias incidents against Asian Americans amid the ongoing pandemic.

At first, Jeung’s work consisted of analyzing news articles about coronavirus, xenophobia and racism. It didn’t take long, he said, for a “clear pattern” to emerge.

“Following xenophobic policies or statements, the next week we would see boycotts of Asian businesses and then the following week more interpersonal attacks on Asian individuals,” he said.

A website, “Stop AAPI Hate” started by Jeung and two community groups, has documented more than 1,100 incidents targeting Asian Americans in at least 36 states since launching last month. (AAPI refers to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders).

The incidents have ranged from verbal harassment and shunning to physical assault.

On March 9, a woman in San Francisco said she was spit on by a man yelling expletives about China, the New York Times reported. Later that same month, an Asian woman riding a New York City bus was targeted by several other passengers who called her a racial slur and accused her of causing coronavirus, WPIX reported. One of the attackers then struck the woman on the head with an umbrella, resulting in an injury that needed stitches, according to the news station.

Yang Zhang, a Chinese co-author on the paper written by the international coalition of scholars, said he grew interested in the subject after a Chinese student he knows had an unpleasant encounter on a local bus in Germany. One passenger said to another that the student was a “Chinese virus,” said Zhang, a computer scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Information Security, in Saarbrücken, Germany.

Zhang said that “even as a man who is used to hearing racial slurs about Chinese people,” he was startled to discover the range and intensity of hateful language he found on social media once he began research for the paper. Like the others, he worried that the hostility already had spilled out in the offline world.

“I always treat social media data as a good sensor of the real world,” said Zhang.

Charissa Cheah, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who is leading another study examining discrimination against Chinese Americans during the pandemic, said anti-Chinese language such as “kungflu” and “batsoup” have their roots in historically racist tropes that have long been used to denigrate Asian Americans and cast them as foreigners no matter how long they have lived in the U.S.

“Covid-19 is merely refueling processes that are already there,” said Cheah, whose research will also study Twitter activity related to the outbreak. “I worry that we might interpret these findings as, ‘Oh it’s covid-19 that’s causing it.’ This is simply not true. The current pandemic is merely providing an outlet and making it easier to justify expressions of Sinophobia.”

Another indicator of rising hostility toward China is the surging use of Twitter hashtags such as #BlameChina , #ChinaLiedPeopleDied, #ChinaVirus, #WuhanCoronaVirus and #ChinaCoronaVirus, according to an unpublished analysis done by Clemson University researcher Darren Linvill.

The hashtag #ChineseVirus surged to nearly 130,000 uses the day after Trump used it in a tweet. Linvill, an assistant professor of communication, said the use was particularly prominent among accounts that regularly support Trump on Twitter.

But he cautioned that the character of anti-Chinese expressions varies sharply across social media platforms, based on both the nature of the user bases and the extent to which platforms restrict behavior. Twitter, for example, has policies against hate speech. 4chan does not.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising, and it manifests itself differently in different places,” Linvill said. “On 4chan, it’s racist. On Twitter, it’s political.”

Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said that the study by the international group of scholars, which like most academic research on Twitters relied a 1 percent sample of all tweets, may miss the “nuanced political context around content that is posted on Twitter.”

She also said, “We have zero-tolerance policies in place that address clear threats of violence, abuse and harassment, and hateful conduct. If we identify accounts that violate these rules, we’ll take enforcement action.”

The owner of 4chan, Hiroyuki Nishimura, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

A week after Trump started publicly calling coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” and defended his use of the label against critics who accused him of being racist, the president implored people on Twitter to “protect our Asian American community.”

“They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus is not their fault in any way, shape, or form,” Trump wrote.

The president has also stopped using “Chinese Virus” on social media and during news briefings.

But experts like Cheah said the damage is already done.

“You cannot easily dismantle the ideas that these terms convey,” she said. “When the terms that you use directly connect a particular racial or ethnic group and a disease, you reinforce the link between these two entities. If these links are already based on existing historical tropes and implicit biases, they are easily reinforced and maintained.”





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