A call to take online slurs and threats more seriously

An article by Hohl et al just published in the American Journal of Public Health builds on the March 2021 study by Yulin Hswen, ScD,  showing the rise of racist, anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter in the weeks after former president Trump referred in a tweet to SARS-Cov2 as “the Chinese virus.” Hohl et al geospatially and temporally mapped the anti-Asian tweets according to the user’s location, revealing that the hateful tweets were widespread across the United States, including in San Francisco and New York, which are often considered tolerant.

Hswen was asked to respond to the study. She was not surprised by the findings, noting that San Francisco and New York witnessed vicious hate assaults against Asians during the pandemic as hateful slurs, slogans and threats were broadly expressed online.

“Online hate is today’s version of graffiti. Writing a racist slur as on someone’s wall online painfully impacts their community the same way graffitiing a racist slur on a real building would,” Hswen said. “Except online hate spreads faster and is more widely viewed, extending the pain to a greater number of communities.”

The editorial notes that much of the reluctance to take online speech seriously stems from the lack of research showing the relationship between online hate and real-world violence.

Hswen contends that we have evidence showing that online speech can lead to action in the real world. Previous economic studies have shown a direct link between twitter and the stock market: SnapChat’s stock was plummeted $1.3 billion after Kylie Jenner tweeted that she no longer users the app, and Tesla’s stocks fell by over $14 billion after Elon Musk tweeted that perhaps Telsa’s stock prices were too high.

“Repeating the need for additional research at times feels futile, simply because these events pertaining to hate cannot always be tested empirically,” Hswen wrote.

Much of Hswen’s body of work makes the case that online data, despite its limitations, can serve as an early warning system for problems ranging from racial animus to disease outbreaks. Online data acts as a supplement to surveys and more traditional epidemiological methods that take much longer.

“We need to start looking at effects of online hate and the detriment that it’s doing to our communities,” Hswen said. “We need to start taking it seriously and start preventing it.”