USask researcher examines anti-Asian racism on Twitter throughout COVID-19 pandemic

·2 min read

A team led by a University of Saskatchewan researcher will be reviewing roughly 80 million tweets to track how anti-Asian racism has risen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, Asian people have been among the demographics more likely to report discrimination or being treated unfairly, and report an increased frequency of race-based harassment, according to Statistics Canada.

"It's related to people's beliefs about the origin of the virus and how the virus was spread all over the world," said Zhi Li, a University of Saskatchewan linguistics researcher, while on CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning on Monday.

"It's all about how people see this pandemic and how people relate to the pandemic with Asian communities, especially the Chinese community."

Li recently received $25,000 in federal funding to lead a team that will track just how much hate has been directed toward the Asian community online.

Researchers will focus specifically on Twitter, reviewing an estimated 80 million tweets sent from accounts that originate from Canada, from October 2019 to the present.

The goal is to find noticeable trends in hate speech or xenophobic behaviour toward Asian people, and analyze the potential causes of those patterns, from both a linguistic and sociological perspectives, Li said.

The research topic stems from a social media feed Li created to specifically follow anti-Asian racist incidents reported by news media and how people reacted to those incidents.

One such incident, which was captured on camera and circulated on social media, occurred at a Vietnamese restaurant in Saskatoon last week. A customer was upset when told to wear a mask inside the restaurant and started shouting racial slurs and profanity at staff members.

The man's rant included yelling, "Go back to China."

"I noticed the online world is quite wild and it has so many different views," said Li.

"I'm originally from China. So when I saw those incidents — especially what happened at that restaurant — I thought I could be there, my kids could be there."

Attacks like that are not only against the Chinese community but the whole Asian community, he added.

News media is giving much attention to these types of incidents, he said. But given his field, Li figured he could team up with other experts to examine the phenomenon and make the public aware of what they find.

Li hopes research findings will be released publicly in about a year.

Future projects will look through hateful content in memes, GIFs, and emojis, a U of S news release says.