How anti-Asian activity online set the stage for real-world violence


In January, a new group popped up on the messaging app Telegram, named after an Asian slur.

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 US soldiers inflicting violence during the Vietnam War.

This week, after a gunman killed eight people — including six women of Asian descent — at massage parlours in and near Atlanta, the Telegram channel linked to a poll that asked, “Appalled by the recent attacks on Asians?” The top answer, with 84% of the vote, was that the violence was “justified retaliation for covid” Read more:

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.

The activity follows a rise in anti-Asian misinformation last spring after the coronavirus, which first emerged in China, began spreading around the world. On Facebook and Twitter, people blamed the pandemic on China, with users posting hashtags such as #gobacktochina and #makethecommiechinesepay. Those hashtags spiked when former President Donald Trump last year called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu.”

While some of the online activity tailed off before the November election, its reemergence has helped lay the groundwork for real-world actions, researchers said. The fatal shootings in Atlanta this week, which have led to an outcry over treatment of Asian Americans even as the suspect said he was trying to cure a “sexual addiction,” were preceded by a swell of racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans in places like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate.

“Surges in anti-Asian rhetoric online means an 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.



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