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Anti-Asian hate on Twitter spiked during pandemic

According to a recent study, anti-Asian hate language dramatically surged in 2020 on Twitter.

Researchers at The University of Utah analyzed millions of tweets from late 2019 to early 2020 and found a spike in anti-Asian hate on Twitter at the start of the pandemic.

“In American culture, we perceive Asians to be the model minority, right? They tend to do well academically and make money, or at least that’s our perception,” said Richard Medina, professor at the University of Utah and co-author of the study, in an interview with At the U. “Oftentimes Asians in America are overlooked as targets of hate speech or hate crimes. But COVID-19 brought that out.”

The rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the onset of the pandemic prompted researchers to investigate.

“Once the hate is up, then the hate persists,” said Alexander Hohl, lead author of the study, told At the U. “During the onset of COVID, there were reports of hate crimes committed on Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. We think that warrants a research perspective.”

The researchers purchased 4,234,694 geolocated tweets from Twitter that were published between November 2019 and May 2020, classifying them as hateful or non-hateful based on the presence of keywords related to anti-Asian hate (‘kunglu,’ ‘Wuhanvirus,’ etc.) and put them on a map.

From November 2019 to January 2020, there were low levels of hate; 0-0.1% of daily tweets were hateful, according to the University of Utah study. However, anti-Asian hate language drastically increased between January and March of 2020. There were two spikes identified: the first at the end of January 2020, when COVID first arrived in the United States, and the second in mid-March, after President Donald Trump tweeted about the “Wuhan flu” and “Chinese virus.” The analysis is consistent with the findings of a 2021 study demonstrating that Trump’s tweet about the ‘Chinese Virus’ helped fuel anti-Asian hate on Twitter. Over time, the volume of anti-Asian tweets went down but remained higher than before the pandemic.

The messaging that blamed COVID-19 on China appeared to spill into public opinion, which led to increased discrimination. The Stop AAPI Hate Initiative found that there were over 9,000 hate incidents during the first year of COVID.

“We’re working right now on kind of making that connection between hate on social media towards the Asian American community and actual acts of hate crimes on the ground,” said Hohl to Fox 13. “You inject hate into social media, it’s not completely going away.”

The researchers identified 15 clusters as geographic regions where the number of anti-Asian hate tweets was statistically higher than expected. The strongest cluster was in Ross County, Ohio, where the proportion of hateful tweets was about 300 times higher than the rest of the country.

There were no clear patterns for anti-Asian hate along urban and rural or geographic gradients, but the authors plan to do further analysis, which may reveal demographic and socioeconomic factors to help explain cluster locations.

“What stood out to me, for example, the Seattle area is not as prominent on the map, even though we discovered COVID-19 in the United States near Seattle,” said Hohl.

This study is the first to put anti-Asian hate tweets on a map, and the authors hope this method will guide officials to allocate resources toward responding to pandemic-based racism as a public health threat. Ultimately, the authors want their method to become a public health tool for protecting marginalized communities from racist hate crimes.

“The hope is that we can use hate in social media as a predictor of hate on the streets to use as an alarm for communities and public health officials to get the help and protection that they need,” Medina told At the U.

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