Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Tracked tweets reflect racist attitudes online, says of U of A researcher


Calgary is the third most ethnically diverse city in Canada, but racist attitudes still prevail online, according to a University of Alberta researcher.


As part of his Twitter Racism Project, Irfan Chaudhry, 31, a sociology PhD student at U of A, spent last summer tracking racist tweets from the six Canadian cities with the highest reported incidents of hate crime. From June to August, he recorded 62 racist tweets from Calgary.

Chaudhry only tracked geotagged tweets, which make up just one per cent of all tweets. But he said the project still provides a troubling snapshot of racism in a multicultural society.

“In Canada, we’re so reluctant to talk about race and racism specifically so often times in public discourse it’s rarely ever brought up but when you shift to the online realm people are ... freely being racist,” said Chaudhry, who will present his findings at the Social Media and Society International Conference in Toronto next month.

To conduct his research, Chaudhry flagged common racist terms coming out of Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.

In Calgary, as well as Edmonton and Winnipeg, the majority of comments were directed at the aboriginal community. About 50 per cent of all the racist tweets were real-time observations, said Chaudhry.

“I’d always notice people complaining to Calgary transit about aboriginals in public spaces,” he said.

Overall, he said the number of Calgary-based racist tweets was low. Toronto accounted for 434; Vancouver had 99; Winnipeg had 78; Edmonton had 60; and Montreal had 43. In Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, the n-word was the most common racist term.

Darren Lund, a professor at the U of C’s the Werklund School of Education who researches social justice issues, said he was disheartened but not surprised by the findings.

“It seems that most of us have been raised in a way that even if we’re really nice, well-intentioned people, we’re still taught in some ways to think of aboriginal people as less than, or as flawed,” he said.

And while cities like Vancouver and Calgary have a strong immigrant presence, ethnic groups can remain fragmented.

“You can kind of live your lives more segregated here,” he said.

U of C computer science professor Tom Keenan said people feel more comfortable expressing views online that they wouldn’t in real life.

“The more distance you have between that good old fashioned face-to-face thing, the more likely people are to express things that they would’ve self-censored otherwise.”

He also said people with extreme views tend to play to an audience.

But Keenan cautioned against reading too much into a study like this, noting that there are plenty of variables including size of population and intention behind a tweet.

“There’s no action coming out of a study like this except for the study itself publicizing that there are still racists.”

In the future, Chaudhry plans to look at Twitter responses around racially-charged news events, such as the murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada.

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