How Anti-Asian Activity Online Set the Stage for Real-World Violence
On platforms such as Telegram and 4chan, racist memes and posts about Asian-Americans have created fear and dehumanization.
Hundreds of people quickly joined. Many members soon began posting caricatures of Asians with exaggerated facial features, memes of Asian people eating dog meat and images of American soldiers inflicting violence during the Vietnam War.
The Telegram group was a sign of how anti-Asian sentiment has flared up in corners of the internet, amplifying racist and xenophobic tropes just as attacks against Asian-Americans have surged. On messaging apps like Telegram and on internet forums like 4chan, anti-Asian groups and discussion threads have been increasingly active since November, especially on far-right message boards such as The Donald, researchers said.
“Surges in anti-Asian rhetoric online means increased risk of real-world events targeting that group of people,” said Alex Goldenberg, an analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University, which tracks misinformation and extremism online.
He added that the anti-China coronavirus misinformation — including the false narrative that the Chinese government purposely created Covid-19 as a bioweapon — had created an atmosphere of fear and invective.
Anti-Asian speech online has typically not been as overt as anti-Semitic or anti-Black groups, memes and posts, researchers said. On Facebook and Twitter, posts expressing anti-Asian sentiments have often been woven into conspiracy theory groups such as QAnon and in white nationalist and pro-Trump enclaves. Mr. Goldenberg said forms of hatred against Black people and Jews have deep roots in extremism in the United States and that the anti-Asian memes and tropes have been more “opportunistically weaponized.”
But that does not make the anti-Asian hate speech online less insidious. Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation, said the misinformation and racist speech has led to a “dehumanization” of certain groups of people and to an increased risk of violence.
Negative Asian-American tropes have long existed online but began increasing last March as parts of the United States went into lockdown over the coronavirus. That month, politicians including Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, and Representative Kevin McCarthy, a Republican of California, used the terms “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese coronavirus” to refer to Covid-19 in their tweets.
Mr. Trump also posted eight times on Twitter last March about the “Chinese virus,” causing vitriolic reactions. In the replies section of one of his posts, a Trump supporter responded, “U caused the virus,” directing the comment to an Asian Twitter user who had cited U.S. death statistics for Covid-19. The Trump fan added a slur about Asian people.
“There’s been a lot of discussion that ‘Chinese virus’ isn’t racist and that it can be used,” said Yulin Hswen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who conducted the research. But the term, she said, has turned into “a rallying cry to be able to gather and galvanize people who have these feelings, as well as normalize racist beliefs.”
Representatives for Mr. Trump, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Gosar did not respond to requests for comment.
Misinformation linking the coronavirus to anti-Asian beliefs also rose last year. Since last March, there have been nearly eight million mentions of anti-Asian speech online, much of it falsehoods, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights firm.
In one example, a Fox News article from April that went viral baselessly said that the coronavirus was created in a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan and intentionally released. The article was liked and shared more than one million times on Facebook and retweeted 78,800 times on Twitter, according to data from Zignal and CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing social media.
By the middle of last year, the misinformation had started subsiding as election-related commentary increased. The anti-Asian sentiment ended up migrating to platforms like 4chan and Telegram, researchers said.
In December, slurs about Asians and the term “Kung Flu” rose by 65 percent on websites and apps like Telegram, 4chan and The Donald, compared with the monthly average mentions from the previous 11 months on the same platforms, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute. The activity remained high in January and last month.
During this second surge, calls for violence against Asian-Americans became commonplace.
“Filipinos are not Asians because Asians are smart,” read a post in a Telegram channel that depicted a dog holding a gun to its head.
After the shootings in Atlanta, a doctored screenshot of what looked like a Facebook post from the suspect circulated on Facebook and Twitter this week. The post featured a miasma of conspiracies about China engaging in a Covid-19 cover-up and wild theories about how it was planning to “secure global domination for the 21st century.”
Facebook and Twitter eventually ruled that the screenshot was fake and blocked it. But by then, the post had been shared and liked hundreds of times on Twitter and more than 4,000 times on Facebook.
Source: New York Times