A new study backs up what has already been documented anecdotally in the last few months: The coronavirus pandemic has coincided with a surge in Sinophobic, or anti-Chinese, sentiments – especially online.
Researchers at the Network Contagion Research Institute, an independent third party that tracks misinformation and hate across social media channels, released a report Wednesday that looked at the spread of hate online toward Asians in congruence with the pandemic.
“As a conjoined threat, outbreaks of hate and disinformation on social media comprise unparalleled dangers to society in the face of actual viral pandemics, such as Covid-19,” according to the study, which is titled “Weaponized Information Outbreak: A Case Study on Covid-19, Bioweapon Myths, and the Asian Conspiracy Meme.”
“NCRI’s research indicates that hateful communities may serve as sources of spread for disinformation and propaganda during politically volatile events for purposes of hate.”
The group of researchers first looked at 4chan, an online bulletin board that frequently features offensive posts, and found a rise in derogatory terms for Chinese people around February of this year. Other terms and slurs toward minority groups decreased or flatlined in relation to topics surrounding the virus, research found.
The sentiments reflected in 4chan’s forum, researchers said, also were linked to conspiracy theories surrounding Asian people and coronavirus. One claim suggested that coronavirus is a bioweapon created by China’s government and transmitted by Chinese people.
“If we see violence and hateful rhetoric stemming from subcultural communities, we need to be able to track these communications in real time to see what they’re talking about,” said Alex Goldenberg, an analyst at the institute and one of the authors of the study.
Though the racist sentiments may begin in smaller subcultures on 4chan, Goldenberg said they also make their way onto mainstream social media platforms, like Twitter, Instagram and Reddit.
“We are seeing instances where this Asian conspiracy is seeping into the mainstream, and an outgrowth of that could very well be violence,” Goldenberg said.
For example, Goldenberg said on Instagram, researchers found an instance where one user said he and his friends would shoot Asian people in Chinatown because “that’s the only way we can destroy the epidemic.” These kinds of comments, Goldenberg said, are concerning.
“Outbreaks of weaponized information serve to attack public trust and undermine democratic institutions at a key moment of global vulnerability,” the study says.
The study comes amid an uptick of racist assaults and attacks against East Asian people and those of Asian descent.
Earlier this week, multiple teen girls in New York were charged with hate crimes after police said they attacked a woman on a bus, made “anti-Asian statements” toward her and told her she caused coronavirus.
Across the globe, one East Asian student was beaten while studying in London.
Two Hmong men said they were discriminated against out of fear of the novel coronavirus while looking for a hotel room in Indiana in February. Video footage shows a hotel employee saying: “If you are from China, I need to know.”
“With news of the coronavirus, we’ve seen an uptick in fear of people who look like this,” Rosalind Chou, a sociology professor at Georgia State University, told CNN in February. “Real people are affected.”
And as people are increasingly confined and anxious, they turn to social media in droves, Goldenberg said – making intercepting online hate and misinformation especially important during the pandemic.