Dr. Zhi Li (PhD) is a USask linguistics researcher and assistant professor with the College of Arts and Science. (Photo: Submitted)

USask study collects 3.5 million anti-Asian tweets amid COVID-19 pandemic

A University of Saskatchewan (USask) research team has collected nearly 3.5 million posts on Twitter expressing anti-Asian sentiments. It’s part of a study looking into how social media hatred directed at the Asian community has risen dramatically since the emergence of COVID-19.

“As an Asian immigrant myself, I have been deeply troubled by the surge of anti-Asian incidents and violence since the start of the pandemic,” said Dr. Zhi Li (PhD), a USask linguistics researcher and assistant professor with the College of Arts and Science.

Li and his USask colleagues, Dr. Roy Ka-Wei Lee (PhD) and Dr. Hongming Cheng (PhD), believed it was their social responsibility to help address the online hate-speech and the potential harms it could cause because of their connection with the issue. 

The goal of the project is to better understand the development of online xenophobic behaviours on social media—from both a linguistic and sociological perspective—to raise public awareness and inform policy makers. 

“While I believe Saskatchewan has been a friendly home to immigrants, new or old, it is not immune to toxic information and misinformation on social media, which can attract online hate-speech and may instigate offline violence,” said Li. 

Earlier this year in Saskatchewan, a man was captured on video shouting anti-Asian racist insults in a Saskatoon restaurant. Shortly after, in March, another Saskatoon restaurant owner spoke out after receiving anti-Asian comments on a Facebook post.

That same month, Asian communities around the world mourned the death of eight victims murdered by a white gunman at three Atlanta-area massage parlours. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. The mass shooting took place among a wave of attacks against Asian Americans connected to the spread of COVID-19 across the United States.

Li said with the increase of online and physical violence against Asian communities, he constantly worries about the safety of his family.

“There are still many things that we need to do to fight racism and promote inclusiveness,” he said. 

Since the project was made public, several members of the Asian community have reached out to Li and his team to express support and volunteer their help.

“That is very encouraging,” he said.

Li, Lee, and Cheng currently have additional support from two graduate students and one undergraduate student. Data collection for their project, which was awarded nearly $25,000 in funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada earlier this year, will continue until June 2021, targeting tweets sent in Canada from October 2019 until present.

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