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At the University of Michigan, Mapping Software Reveals Prevalence of Anti-AAPI Hate


Throughout 2020, Dr. Melissa Borja, an assistant professor in the department of American culture at the University of Michigan (U-M), and a small team of researchers scoured media sites looking for news coverage of incidents of anti-Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate.

Dr. Melissa BorjaDr. Melissa BorjaBorja and her team identified 1,023 incidents in 4,337 news articles; 679 were incidents of harassment or vandalism, and 344 were incidents of stigmatizing or discriminatory statements, images, policies, or proposals. Women were victims in nearly two thirds of all reported incidents, and people of Chinese descent were more likely to experience hate.

"I wanted people to know that this wasn’t just a California or New York problem," said Borja. "It was important to me to have a more complex view of this being a problem in our own communities.”

Borja wanted to make her team's research more accessible and easy to understand. People may not read a 20-page report, she said, but they will definitely interact with a website. So, she reached out to Peter Knoop and his research computing and infrastructure team at U-M. Knoop is an advocacy and research support lead. He helps the College of Literature, Science and the Arts translate their research using clever and communicative software like geographical information system (GIS). Using GIS, Knoop turned Borja's data into the Virulent Hate website, creating interactive maps that clearly and quickly illustrate just how prevalent instances of anti-AAPI hate were around the country.

“To be able to share research with the world, the mapping and the public facing scholarship component of this is critical for us to change the conversation and help us understand things better,” said Borja.

Borja said she assumed the pandemic would end in 2020, and that incidents of hate connected with the virus would subside. Instead, said Borja, incidents have increased substantially in the first few months of 2021, especially as tensions between the U.S. and China continues to build. So, the project has now expanded, and Knoop, Borja, and her team will continue to track the spread of anti-AAPI hate around the country through the end of 2021.

Borja's research team, mostly young, AAPI-identifying students, read each and every single anti-AAPI hate incident reported that they could find, manually categorizing and coding each. The work, said Borja, was morally exhausting.

“This was a labor of love,” said Borja. “Other groups had faster ways of doing this, but it wasn’t as nuanced as we wanted it to be. We are first and foremost researchers, not social media influencers.”

The Virulent Hate website breaks down the data into multiple minutiae, what kind of hateful act was performed, where it was performed, who was the victim, how old were they were, what gender they were assigned in the text? Because the data was collected manually, Knoop said, the database created was much more robust.

“The schema kept changing a little bit; it was a reflection of their effort, their flexibility of having been deep in the data,” said Knoop. The team could recategorize as new information was learned and processed, in a way that, “if they’d just done web scraping, no one would have had as clear a picture in their head.”

“A lot of what I try to do it to match the communication with the right set of tools,” said Knoop. “Coming from a tech perspective, user experience, you want people to take the message away. Do they get that from a report or a one graph with a visual?”

According to Knoop, if a picture is worth 1000 words, then “a map is worth 1000 pictures. It’s a storytelling technology.”

Using GIS helped Borja think of different ways to analyze information.

“There are lots of incidents in certain states. But I live in Indiana, and when you look at the number of incidents and think about it in relation to the size of the Asian population living there, you have a different sense of vulnerability and can convey it more convincingly using maps,” said Borja.

As data points, Indiana news reported 15 incidents of anti-AAPI hate. But AAPI are just under 2% of the entire population of Indiana, making it a state with one of the highest incidences per capita in the U.S. This nuance can be conveyed to readers at a glance by the using GIS software.

“A couple things really shape what’s in our database. The presence of news media that pays attention to Asian stories, the question of what happens in the real world, and do Asian American share their stories,” said Borja. “If you’re the only Asian in a community, you may not feel comfortable [sharing incidents of hate.] How things are covered, who shares their story, these are factors that play into this.”

Borja’s team is also tracking the ways in which AAPI communities are responding to these incidents of hate. Because they sort through every article manually, and because there has been such a marked increase of reported incidents, Borja anticipates her next results may not be published until 2023.

“My hope is that our next report will focus on case studies, how people respond to this problem in their own locales,” said Borja. “That’s at the heart of our work. We want people to understand this problem, give them the information that allows them to feel inspired to work in their community organizations to advocate for better public policies.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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