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Social Media’s Influence on Racism

By Matthew Kwong

The continuous advancement of technology influences how many people perceive reality. With over half the world using social media today, it can create a virtual world of misconception and partiality. Social media has been an ongoing influence on social and political polarization concerning online racism. Its ability to connect people allows for racism and hate speech to increase due to its ease of accessibility. The spread of racism across social media continues to play a dangerous role in social polarization as it reinforces human prejudices. Little progress has been made to alleviate the constant influence of racism throughout social media platforms. Though social media has regulations on what one can post, it has done little to resolve the issue, as hate comments are still relevant throughout media, such as in the public comment sections. Although social media has allowed many to stay connected, it has also promoted virtual racism through its accessibility and concealment of identity problems, a crucial social issue.

Racism spread through social media platforms in the modern era is also called cyber racism. As social media platforms continue to increase their active users, the spread of hate speech and racism among users increases. Social media’s ability to quickly spread misinformation leads to the significant issue of cyber racism. According to a 2018 MIT study, false news on Twitter is 70% more likely to be reposted than real news. The study also found that true stories take about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false ones. The easily spread misinformation through social media platforms such as Twitter has greatly encouraged false stories based on personal prejudice of individuals, much of the time having to do with racism. Ultimately, similar statistics across all major social media platforms allow racists and promoters of hate speech to effectively share their biased views on ethnic groups (Dizikes). According to Imran Iwan, a professor in criminology and a hate speech researcher, social media is an echo chamber for conveying racist and hateful views. A virtual world causes people not to consider others’ perceptions of reality and reinforces the mentality of accepting racially motivated hate through social media. Although many don’t command a large reputation on social media and are considered normal users, they hold equal potential to the threat of discriminatory influence through media. Although unaffiliated individuals may not share the motivation to share hate compared to prominent influencers, they express ethnic and religious hatred through the social creativity of online manipulation (Iwan).

Social media’s ability to spread hateful rhetoric messages doesn’t only come from private individuals but also social media platforms themselves. Often, the media does not treat issues online as seriously as matters in the real world, which has to do with social media’s lack of consequences for those who violate their supposed hateful conduct policy. For instance, Twitter has “finally permanently removed right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins from its platform for violating its hateful conduct policy” (Iwan). She had a following of over 1.1 million but was banned from the platform due to her long-term discrimination toward minority racial groups. According to The Guardian, Hopkins had compared migrants to cockroaches, claimed a photograph of a dead Syrian boy was staged and stated that people with dementia should not hinder hospitals. More recently, she criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and the government’s decision to provide meals to students in need without cost. Despite her continuous discrimination, Twitter had long failed to remove her from the platform. According to Twitter, they had only intended to terminate her verification (a blue check mark that appears next to a user’s name to indicate their authenticity) and not suspend her from the platform. However, after Hopkins continued complaining about her verification, Twitter finally took the more appropriate action of permanently removing her account. According to its website, the hateful conduct policy “prohibits promoting violence against or directly attacking or threatening people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, age, disability or serious disease” (Slawson). However, after several violations, Twitter still refused to take serious action, which shows how social media platforms treat the influence of hate speech and racism on their platform. If Twitter was this hesitant in removing a discriminatory columnist from its platform for violating its clear policies, it’s more than likely that Twitter or any other social media platform would not take serious action against unaffiliated individual users. Social media has proven to be a powerful tool to effectively influence and reinforce ideas of not only friendly communication but hateful rhetoric and hate speeches. The unfortunate cause for the continuous increase in racism spread through social media is primarily the number of people that take advantage of online communication. In addition to organized racist groups, unaffiliated individuals vastly outnumber the organized groups.

Take COVID-19, a modern-day global issue, as an example to emphasize the influence of racism throughout social media. COVID-19 rapidly spread globally in a matter of months after its initial outbreak. At first, the unknown virus instilled fear and anger in many, unaware of its potential threat to society. As a result, many turned their feelings into discrimination and racism toward Asian Americans. According to Murni Wan Mohd Nor, professor of civilizational studies and a senior lecturer, social media has been the most effective way to convey hate speech and racism in past years. She also says, “Online culture has encouraged and normalised the expression of our every thought and actions online. Many neglect to exercise consideration and caution in their statements, and this has led to a surge in hate speech around the world” (Hassandarvish). In the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Murni emphasizes that the most significant motive that fuels the spread of racism is the fear of their safety, not the group of ethnic minorities directly. The fear is caused by the supposed threat these groups pose to their community. These feelings of trepidation are amplified during uncertain times as people become more paranoid about the potential outcome, physical security, and economic livelihood (Hassandarvish). Murni also explains how “the pandemic had amplified their fear and paranoia, and for many, they translated their feelings into expressions of hate speech.” Because of the uncertainty of the new pandemic, people translated their fear of the pandemic to anger, which ended up being directed towards Asians for “starting” the virus. As public fear continued to spread, many began drafting their ideas into social media due to its ease of accessibility. Because biased views and false information spread six times faster than real news, it allows many to spread their ignorant opinions to millions with a simple click of a digital button. With fear turning into racism towards the Asian community, people attempted to influence a gradual increase of users to follow along through the usage of social media, emphasizing the potent online threat social media can pose.

Besides anonymity, social media also provides ease of communication. Unlike in real life, social media allows one to communicate with anyone from family to celebrities. Though celebrities may not respond or see your message, social media makes it possible even to send them a message. This ease of communication allows promoters of hate speech to express their racially motivated feelings towards people they cannot communicate with in real life. Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Chloe Kim recently brought to attention the rise of anti-Asian attacks she had experienced since the COVID-19 pandemic. She told ESPN, “I was getting messages from people telling me I’m part of the problem because I was being silent. I was like, ‘Do you realize I’m also Asian American and this affects me?’ It was a lot of white people telling me they were upset at my silence” (Kim). She further revealed that she receives these racist comments on social media over 30 times a day and added that “people belittled my accomplishment because I was Asian. There were messages in my DMs telling me to go back to China and to stop taking medals away from the white American girls on the team” (Kim). Though she is fluent in Korean, her native language, she sometimes stopped speaking Korean in public due to feelings of embarrassment and shame. She felt embarrassed to be part of the Asian American community, which emphasizes the detrimental effects of how social media affects social polarization (Kim). Although social media is an online form of communication, those feelings one expresses translate to reality. Therefore, if one acts discriminatory on social media, they are likely discriminatory in the real world. Social media allows forms of communication that may not have been accepted in the real world, which promotes the idea of discrimination and racism and is only going to distinct society even further, as emphasized by Kim’s situation.

Despite cyber racism’s detrimental effects on society, there are potential ways to counter these acts of hate. As a society, people need to begin treating online platforms no different from how the reality of society functions. Online users are real humans, and until people realize that online media is no different from reality, there is no way to prevent prejudice against perceived AIs. As Murni explains, racism and hate speech are being used by people of different socio-economic and ethnic groups, indicating that the problem isn’t as shallow as one may think (Hassandarvish). Racism and hate speech is deeply rooted in society and has constantly been progressing without many realizing it because online media undermines the reality of the person behind the screen. Social media, with its anonymity and lack of consequences, allows these deeply rooted expressions to be conveyed to the public. According to Murni, an effective way to counter hate and racism through online platforms is to further emphasize kindness and consideration towards all groups of people. These lessons must be implemented at all educational levels in school education systems (Hassandarvish). In addition, Murni adds that “students in secondary school and at the university level need to be taught the ethics and etiquette of using social media, which is a common course in other countries.” In the context of the education system of many countries, she addresses the issue of young students not being taught genuine kindness and respect for people despite their ethnic or religious beliefs. It would be one of the most “natural” forms of rebuilding humanity revolving around racism, leading to a decrease in hate speech and racism conveyed through social media.

However, to defeat the effects of racism using social media, not only do individuals need to take action, but the government too. Murni says that current laws are too vague and allow any kind of speech to be criminalized for improper usage. (Hassandarvish). She also explains how many democratic countries have specific and comprehensive laws on hate speech or racial-related comments not to make penalizing speech easier but to address the legal issues in detail, reducing the risk of abusing the law (Hassandarvish). Although it was essential to have enforced regulations for the issue, Murni says that the legal approach cannot only answer to tackle and solve the problem. The most effective resolution would be for society to accept ethnic and religious differences and treat people on social media the way they would treat someone in real life. Unfortunately, this is absent in today’s media world as the digital screen takes away the humanity of interactions.

Social media is a platform where hate groups can spread their opinions. Many neglect that social media users are still humans who are no different from people they meet in real life. This causes people to begin turning their feelings and beliefs into words of hate towards certain religious or ethnic groups, which is widely influenced by the use of social media due to its accessibility. Although the significant issue of racism spread through online platforms may seem impractical to fully resolve, as individuals part of society, everyone must be educated on the detrimental effects of racial prejudice as a whole and its cause. Without society’s knowledge, resolving hate speeches and racism is impossible. For users engaged on social media, people should participate in the act of reporting hate accounts and spreading awareness through the use of communication that social media provides. Though it may seem ineffective, as long as the online community unites for a common cause, hate speech and racism influenced through virtual platforms will soon cease.

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