Online harassment, including racial hate speech, has unfortunately become a common experience for many Americans. In new research, Stephanie Tom Tong and David C. DeAndrea examine the likelihood that White social media users will react as an ally when they see hate directed online towards Asians. They find that while most White participants generally found anti-Asian sentiments online to be offensive, this was more likely to be the case for white Democrats, and they did not always follow through with their intended act of allyship.
Over 40 percent of Americans report experiencing some form of online harassment. Racial hate speech is a specific form of toxic behavior that is widespread online. Scholars define racial hate speech as hostile language that purposely discriminates against individuals because of their race or ethnicity. To fully understand the effects of online hate speech, we need to understand how passive observers interpret and respond to the hateful posts that scroll across their social media feeds every day.
Because evaluations of hate speech depend on who reads them, a variety of characteristics can shape whether a viewer finds an online hate speech post to be typical or atypical—or, in other words, their expectancies about that post. For example, the language used in the post, the ethnicity of the person posting it, or the group being targeted can all affect how observers interpret the online hate speech act.
Studying online anti-Asian hate speech
The rise of anti-Asian hate speech during the pandemic provided a natural context to study how social media users respond to racial hate speech online. Given the growing multicultural composition of the United States (and many nations), in new research, we examined how observers’ expectations about members of different racial/ethnic groups influence their judgments of racial hate speech. Notably, we were interested in understanding how White social media users would interpret online racial hate speech, depending on whether it was posted by a fellow ingroup member (i.e., White person) or by a member of a non-Asian minority group. We focused on the reactions and evaluations of White adults in the United States, as they are positioned to serve as allies against racial injustice. Essentially, our study addressed the questions, if White observers “see something” online, will they “say something” or “do something” and if so, what?
There are competing views about how majority group members might think about inter-minority relations—or more pointedly, how they might “expect” members of minority groups to interact with each other. One view known as minority commonality or shared fate reflects an expectation that members of one minority group would empathize with the plight of individuals in a different minority group who also experience marginalization. As such, we might not expect to see, for instance, a non-Asian minority person target Asians with online hate speech in a social media post. An alternative view holds that conflict and competition exists between racial groups who often must contend against each other for scarce resources and elevated social standing. Those holding this view might not be too surprised to see a member of one minority group verbally attack an individual from a different group to level up their own group’s status by degrading another.
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We anticipated that observers’ political ideology would help explain which perspective on inter-minority relations that White adults in the United States would adopt. Democrats, relative to Republicans, embrace diversity and more readily acknowledge the marginalization of minority group members by White Americans. As such, they are less likely than Republicans to expect racial hate speech to come from a member of a minority group. On the other hand, Republicans, relative to Democrats, are more likely believe in reverse racism. Therefore, they are more likely than Democrats to expect racial harassment to come from a minority group member. In this way, understanding what observers expect is important because those expectancies should influence how they evaluate anti-Asian hate speech posted by individuals with different ethnic backgrounds. The more unexpected or surprising viewers find anti-Asian online hate speech to be, the more offensive they should find the posts, and the more willing they should be to combat that online hate through their own acts of online activism.
Expectations influence people’s reactions to anti-Asian hate speech online
We conducted an experiment to test the role that the poster’s (or source’s) race and observer’s political ideology has on the evaluation of anti-Asian hate speech among White adults in the United States. Participants randomly viewed a tweet that depicted either a Black or White source who clearly expressed racist, anti-Asian sentiment in the context of COVID-19. Participants then answered a series of questions about the tweet, the source, and themselves, including their political leanings. Notably, participants indicated how offensive they found the tweet to be and their intention to sign an online petition designed to stop anti-Asian hate speech on social media. We also tracked whether participants clicked on a hyperlink to sign an online petition supporting Asian Americans.
Our results indicate that most White participants generally found the anti-Asian tweet offensive. Overall, Democrats compared to Republicans found the anti-Asian tweets more offensive, reported greater intent to sign a petition stopping hate speech, and were more likely to click on a weblink that led them to a real online petition supporting Asian Americans. Because White Democrats believed it was more surprising or unexpected for a Black source to post an anti-Asian message on Twitter, they found the message more troubling than a similar post made by a White source, which they viewed as more expected or typical behavior. This is consistent with expectancy violations theory; unexpected or surprising negative acts receive more attention and condemnation, relatively speaking, than more common or expected negative acts.
Additionally, despite Democrats objectively clicking on the online petition link more often than Republicans, there was only a modest correlation between their stated intention and their actual behavior. In other words, while people said they intended to do something to support a marginalized group, they didn’t always follow through. What might this weak relationship between good intentions and actual behavior indicate? We hope that in the future, researchers will continue to examine the factors that might spur White adults to become genuine allies in the fight for racial equality, rather than engaging in performative virtue signaling. Likewise, researchers should continue to explore how people interpret and respond to perceived conflicts between minoritized groups, in addition to the important (but much more common) scholarly examination of majority-on-minority conflict.
- This article is based on the paper, ‘The Effects of Observer Expectations on Judgments of Anti-Asian Hate Tweets and Online Activism Response’, in Social Media + Society.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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