A first-of-its-kind study this month examines how disinformation is being used, often online, to sow discord between the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and other ethnic or racial groups.
Led by a coalition of AAPI organizations and academic researchers operating as the Asian American Disinformation Table, the study includes five case studies covering an array of topics affecting a diverse set of ethnic communities. One of those case studies concerns an issue a lot of us in the Bay Area are struggling to discuss with sensitivity and poise.
It concerns violence against people of Asian descent and how cynical social media actors have shaped a legitimate concern into a destructive narrative pitting Asian and Black communities against each other. Or have tried to, anyway.
Several of the social media accounts the report describes as “bad actors” operate under anonymity and claim to be based in San Francisco.
They are featured in a section of the study that focuses on how a loose network of anonymously run social media accounts, vloggers and alternative news sites are disseminating “powerful shock effect imagery” in the form of CCTV footage, graphic “photographs of bloodied Asian bodies” and recontextualized news stories (including old stories presented as new) to fearmonger the Asian American community and drive a wedge between it and other communities of color, primarily the Black community.
“Don’t fall for it,” said Jonathan Ong, an associate professor of global digital media in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who worked on the study.
Ong said he and his two assistant researchers first noticed how several accounts frequently posted about Black-on-Asian crime during last year’s recall of former District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Ong said the goal of these accounts is to perpetuate a misleading narrative: that Black violence is the foundation of anti-Asian hate in San Francisco.
Here’s one example the report cites: a July 22 post on the anonymously run SF Streets 415 Instagram account, which has 27,000 followers. The post includes gruesome close-up photos of a scalp wound; text purporting to be from someone describing an anti-Asian attack that happened in San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood; and a lengthy caption from SF Streets 415 that reads:
“Black juveniles are targeting and violently attacking Asians especially Asian women these days. It’s happening all over the city and the Bay Area and the targets are members of the Asian community. SFSTREETS415 and our twitter page Asian Crime Report are the only ones reporting daily about these anti Asian hate crimes. The media outlets, local and national, refuse to and have zero desire to.”
That line about the media not paying attention is an old tactic, one that the Asian American Disinformation Table’s report says advances “conspiratorial narratives that insinuate there is a ‘woke’ liberal conspiracy where Democrat politicians, leftist journalists, and platforms themselves have suppressed the real truth about the roots of Asian hate.”
If you’re wondering why they would do that, consider that San Francisco data from the FBI show white people are largely behind local hate crimes, and a national report by Janelle Wong, a professor of American and Asian American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, shows white people are largely behind the reported hate crimes throughout the U.S.
This data underlies a cynical ploy by these social media influencers to move Asian Americans to the political right — by repackaging genuine concerns about the far-right hate against them — and thus diluting the AAPI community’s political power and agency, according to the Asian American Disinformation Table’s report.
I thought about this while tuning into the live stream of last week’s town hall on anti-Asian violence that San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and Police Chief Bill Scott attended.
The event, co-hosted by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and Asian Justice Movement, opened online with news footage of three recent attacks on older residents. The clips were brutal to watch and reminded me of the power that images have to color our perceptions of what’s happening right outside of our door. Some of the uglier comments on the live-stream chat reminded me how invested some folks online are in stoking racial division.
But the videos that were played for the online crowd — there were about 140 of us — weren’t shown at the in-person town hall. And the tenor of the discussion in real life wasn’t the toxic binary arguments we’ve come to see on social media platforms.
People at the town hall wanted solutions, yes, but not everyone agreed what those solutions looked like. For some, it looked like more or better policing. For others, it looked like going beyond police to address the root causes of crime. Several demanded public safety solutions that included tackling homelessness and emphasizing collaboration between marginalized communities.
Scott spoke several times, often answering questions and, at one point, noting that hate crime reports were trending down in the city this year. Beyond that, Stop AAPI Hate, which has become the leading resource for understanding the anti-Asian hostility stoked by former President Donald Trump and the far right, is releasing data showing this is largely an epidemic of racist harassment, not violence.
That’s probably little comfort to anyone who has been the victim of a violent attack or targeted crime. But there are so many people who are afraid to leave their homes because of what they believe is an explosion of violence, and we in the media can do a much better job of providing the context that these social media aggregators deliberately omit.
There’s power in narratives, especially in our high-octane media age, when algorithms feed us gigabytes of content that reinforce our beliefs rather than challenge and expand them. Ensuring the narratives are actually true is key, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the civil rights organization Equality Labs and a contributor to the Disinformation Table report.
“What I think is a tragedy of our time is that facts aren’t built because of people who have evidence and peer-reviewed scholarship,” Soundararajan said. “Facts are basically being built by people who say, ‘I want this worldview, and therefore these facts are true.’ That’s a difficult, painful place to be as a community.”