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Researcher Says Twitter Project Shows Racism Alive on Social Media

Researcher exposes racism on Twitter

Illustration by James Martin/CNET

A Canadian researcher launched the Twitter Racism Project in 2013, and now his findings are exposing just how prevalent racism still is on social media and possible reasons why its presence is so strong in the cyber realm.

Irfan Chaudhry, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta and a part-time instructor at MacEwan University, spent three months tracking and collecting tweets that used hurtful, racially charged language.

The project focused on six major Canadian cities – Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Winnipeg.

At the end of his research, Chaudhry had noted more than 750 cases where users utilized racist language. He also noted that in all of these cases, the language was being used with the intent to harm as opposed to being a racially insensitive or poorly thought-out joke.

In fact, many of the racist remarks were made as real-time responses to what people were witnessing in their personal lives.

“One example that stuck out was, ‘I’m sitting on a bus between two ‘pakis,’ for example, and I found that surprising because in real time they’re writing while it’s happening to them and to have that be almost half the tweets I collected was very striking,” Chaudhry told the Edmonton Sun.

“Paki” is a shortened version of “Pakistanian” and has often been used as a racial slur that dates back to the 1950s when Asian immigrants were arriving in the United Kingdom for the first time only to be met by racially charged insults. While not all of the immigrants were from Pakistan, the term was easy to remember and often used in a derogatory manner to refer to any of the newly arriving immigrants.

Chaudhry added that he hopes this helps people realize that while racism may not be as prevalent as it was in the past, it’s still a very real part of our everyday lives.

“… Racism still does exist, maybe not, thankfully, as overt as before, but we still can’t discount that is does exist – and when you see some of the tweets it’s very direct in its focus,” he said.

Racism on Twitter

Credit: Trevor Robb /Edmonton Sun/QMI Agency

He also added that he hopes his research will help people realize just how powerful social media is, especially Twitter.

He added that Twitter could also be used to track “sexist language and homophobic language” as well and help give us a better idea of how prevalent these social issues really are.

He also explained, however, that this negative language tends to be more prevalent online than in real life.

He described a societal issue known as the Online Disinhibition Effect.

“We’re doing this behind all the comfort of our screens or our telephones,” he said, before adding that most people would never blatantly say these types of things in person.

“Before [social media], the most overt form of a text-space racist slur that we would see is if, say, someone graffiti’s it onto a wall, and it’s public and it’s there for people to see, but it’s anonymous,” he said. “Now, you have that same level of being anonymous, and it’s still in a public realm and there’s still a lack of accountability but you can put ownership behind how people are reacting to it. Having that online momentum really foster into offline action is another important tool to think about.”

Chaudhry will be presenting his findings at the 2014 Social Media and Society International Conference in Toronto in September.

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