A few months into the COVID pandemic last year, Canada’s mainstream media published scores of articles claiming that Canadians of East and Southeast Asian ancestry were being subjected to racial attacks. This prompted pundits and politicians to warn that Canada was in the midst of an “anti-Asian hate epidemic.” In response, protests were held across the country. For example, in heavily Asian Vancouver, 500 people rallied outside the city’s most prominent art museum; the mayor called for a “Day of Action”; the University of British Columbia reported that student visits with counsellors had surged; and Metro Vancouver MP Jagmeet Singh introduced a motion in Parliament “condemning and committing to do more to stop anti-Asian racism,” which passed unanimously.
But many Canadians—including many Chinese Canadians—found it implausible that there was a “hate epidemic.” Canada has consistently been rated one of the least racist (and most woke) nations on the planet. Its foreign-born population is among the largest in the world. As for Vancouver, after decades of immigration, almost half its inhabitants are of Asian heritage: as the novelist Tom Wolfe once observed, how can a country that willingly allows its major cities to be demographically transformed within a generation or two be called intolerant?
A close look at the articles beneath the sensationalist headlines suggests that the idea of a “hate epidemic” has essentially been manufactured—by media organisations and advocacy groups that have an incentive to exaggerate problems, so as to catch readers’ attention or promote an ideological agenda. A sampling of prominent articles that have asserted the existence of a “hate epidemic” reveals glaring problems: they rely solely on one or two anecdotes rather than citing context and hard, transparent statistics, and they routinely characterise all kinds of negative experiences as “racist attacks” or “expressions of racial hatred” when there is no expression of racial animus—simply because the offended person happens to be of Asian descent.
Coverage of Canada’s Epidemic of “Anti-Asian Hate”
For example, Diamond Yao’s article last September in the Toronto Star (historically Canada’s highest-circulation newspaper) claims a rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic but describes only one incident—and it was far from a clear case of anti-Asian hate. In the early days of the pandemic, before masks were mandated, an elderly Chinese woman in Toronto who was wearing a mask on a bus noticed that another passenger (of unspecified race) moved away from her. Although no words were exchanged, she later told people that she thought it was because she was wearing a mask. Yao bafflingly labels this a “racist encounter,” even though the only relationship this story has to race is that the woman was Chinese.
Yao also links to two other pieces in which anti-Asian racism is claimed—but the supposed evidence in those linked pieces is equally ambiguous. The first piece, by Elaine Chau at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is titled “Seniors in Vancouver’s Chinatown manage fear, insecurity as anti-Asian racism persists.” It describes two incidents in Vancouver, one in which an Asian woman was randomly slapped, and another in which an Asian woman was randomly punched. The reader is not told what (if anything) either offender said at the time of the assaults—or anything else about the perpetrators, including their race. Again, the only relationship these stories have to race is that the person assaulted happened to be of Asian descent. Chau, too, relies solely on a couple of ambiguous anecdotes—rather than on statistics—and fails to put these assaults into the context of the usual assault rates in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver, where she says these incidents occurred. This area has a large number of residents who are mentally ill, drug-addicted and homeless, one-sixth of them are described as being “in crisis,” and incidents of random violent behaviour occur there daily.
The second piece Yao links to, by Peggy Lam, also at the Canadian Broadcasting Company, is titled “Asian entrepreneurs show solidarity for restaurateur hit by vandalism—despite fears of racism.” It describes an incident in which a vandal wrote the words “eat shit” on the car of a woman who owns a Thai restaurant in Winnipeg. The woman reportedly interpreted this as an anti-Asian hate-crime, but Lam provides no indication that the vandal was ever identified—let alone that the vandal knew who owned the car or that the message had a racist implication. One wonders if the restaurant owner was, ironically, spurred to label this a racist hate crime because of all the media hype proclaiming that such crimes are pervasive.
Indeed, Lam—and the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s fact-checkers—should have been more sceptical and probing, in light of the striking similarity to a 2019 hate-crime report that later turned out to be a hoax: the owner of an Israeli restaurant in Winnipeg reported that he found antisemitic graffiti scrawled on his walls after a break-in; it later emerged that he had staged the break-in and had written the graffiti himself—apparently in an attempt to attract sympathetic diners to his fledgling business.
By reporting a few minor, ambiguous anecdotes as if they were somehow evidence of a rise in racist hate crimes, journalists like Yao, Chau and Lam are, ironically, trivialising the problem of racial hatred—which does exist and can cause real harm. If reporters genuinely want to reduce racism, they should report on the topic in a far more rigorous, fair and objective manner.
In addition, media outlets would be well advised to fact-check stories on this topic particularly closely before disseminating them. Hate-crime hoaxes are not uncommon in the US, and Canada is not immune to this problem. Before hate-crime hoaxes are discovered to be false, they are often widely reported, they can quickly spread groundless fear and distress and they can do considerable damage to race relations, as evidenced by examples in the US such as the white-on-black gang-rape allegations made by Tawana Brawley in 1987, and against the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006.
Nearly two weeks before Yao published her article in the Toronto Star, a cybersecurity firm uncovered a huge China-led cyber-bot operation intended to spread “COVID conspiracy theories” about racism in the US. Thousands of fake accounts spouting disinformation and encouraging protest were found. How has this affected the perception of “rising anti-Asian hate” in Canada and elsewhere? Why didn’t the Canadian Broadcasting Company or the Toronto Star cover this story? Did they fear it might challenge the alarmist narrative they had helped construct?
The Chinese Canadian National Council
A prominent and widely cited 2021 report by the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council (a taxpayer-funded advocacy group) raises several similar red flags. The report presents data that the council collected—by soliciting people to post on their online portal examples of what the council calls “anti-Asian hate incidents.” Like the news articles described above, the council’s report relies on anecdotes rather than citing statistics—and counts any negative experience with a stranger as a “racist attack” or “expression of racial hatred,” even if the only connection with race is that the offended person happens to be of Asian descent.
The report’s apparent indifference to objective facts is well captured in a remark (cited in Yao’s piece) by Amy Go—president of the council’s self-described social-justice wing: she says that the “surge of racism” has prompted one person to tell her that they are now “questioning their move to Canada and hope their children won’t have to move again.” The implication is that fear of racism (even when stoked by exaggerated news headlines) is somehow the same thing as evidence of racism.
According to the report, between March 2020, when COVID was declared a pandemic, and March 2021, it received 1,150 accounts of what it calls “racist attacks” in Canada—accounts that were posted to the council’s portal by people who say that they either experienced an incident or witnessed one. (Nearly half the posts are from heavily Asian British Columbia.) However, the council’s choice to call all these accounts examples of “racist attacks” is deeply misleading. Many readers are likely to assume that the word attack implies physical violence, yet only 8 percent of the incidents describe physical actions, while nearly three-quarters of the incidents describe what the report itself characterises as “verbal harassment.” Furthermore, the report itself attributes over 20 percent of the incidents, not to race, but to attitudes towards gender, language, clothing and mask-wearing.
Another red flag is that, of the two “verbal harassment” incidents that the report chooses to highlight, one involved two children in an outdoor play area telling another (Chinese) child, “Why are you Chinese people spreading the COVID-19 all over the world? It’s so annoying and all of the things are your fault!!” How many of the incidents collected by the council involved exchanges between children rather than adults? The report notes that, in the 8 percent of cases in which physical harm was reported, a disproportionate number of the victims were children—but the report does not specify whether the offenders were also children. Presumably, if many of them were adults, the report would have highlighted this. It would be useful to know how many of these incidents involved, for example, 8-year-olds shoving each other on the playground—clearly something that adults should address, but not so clearly evidence of a nationwide “anti-Asian hate epidemic.”
Just as the report fails to differentiate incidents between schoolchildren from incidents that involve adults, it also fails to differentiate the outbursts of someone who is likely to be mentally ill from incidents that involve an otherwise mentally sound person. For example, one incident involved an Asian man who, after refusing to give a group of homeless people money, was told, “Why don’t you give us some money for that shit you brought over to Canada” (presumably referring to the coronavirus) and was then “lunged at.”
Finally, the government-funded report lumps remarks that are merely clueless or insensitive into the category of “attacks” or “expressions of hatred.” For example, an Asian nurse reported that a colleague of hers had joked during a dinner about her eating a bat—and had then told surrounding colleagues that her son had told her that COVID started because Chinese people eat bats. Although most people would find this racially insensitive, it seems a stretch to call it verbal “harassment,” let alone a racial “attack.”
All these examples are a sign of aggressive accounting. The social harm to all races that is caused by artificially inflating the problem of racism has been covered by the journalist David Goodhart, founder of the Policy Exchange. In his essay, “Racism: Less is More,” he begs readers to differentiate between expressions that are racist and those that are merely racially insensitive. As Goodhart puts it, to muddle the two is like “comparing cancer with a cold.” (Canadian law does make this distinction. For example, Vancouver police recently told the Vancouver Sun that, among the 98 race-related incidents against East Asians reported in 2020, some amounted to “hate” while others involved mere “prejudice or bias.” Journalists should make the same distinction, especially in their headlines.)
Another problem with the council’s report is that no overall data about the race of the offenders is included. Yet, in every one of the very few (nine) instances in which the report’s anecdotes include a description of the offender’s race, the offender is identified as white. This can create a default assumption that all the offenders were white. That is especially troubling when many of the anecdotes are from places like Vancouver—a heavily multiracial and multi-ethnic area in which whites have been in the minority for many years—which makes it more likely that many of the offenders in these reported instances were not white. I reached out to Go’s group, asking them for data on the race of the offenders, but did not get a reply. The indifference of the report’s authors to this information suggests that they were perfectly happy to imply that white Canadians are uniquely intolerant. If this is true, then the council is apparently bent on stoking—rather than documenting—racial tension.
The council’s objectivity is further called into question by its heavy use of identity politics jargon. For example, it begins with a native land acknowledgment, refers often to the concept of “social justice,” capitalises Black while lowercasing white, refers to people as “those who identified as women” or “identified as men” [my emphasis], and informs readers that, because “the majority of attacks happened in public spaces,” this is somehow evidence that “racism is significantly about denying racialized communities equal and full access to public spaces.” The report does not refer the reader to any research in support of this last assertion, and there is of course a more common-sense explanation for why racial tensions disproportionately happen in public spaces: the vast majority of impersonal interactions necessarily take place in public. If the report had left out its identity politics jargon and its strained leaps of logic, one would feel somewhat more inclined to trust its objectivity, and hence its methodology and claims.
A survey conducted by the Canadian government in 2020 found that Canada’s Chinese residents “perceived” that “race-based harassment and attacks” increased by 30 percent from the start of COVID. How much of this “perception” can be attributed to the kind of fearmongering discussed here?
Research by the media analyst Kalev Leetaru has shown that negative language and tone in global news coverage has increased dramatically over the last few decades. He warns that it’s “critically important to recognize that the world’s news media is not an unbiased and complete record of society.” The “tone of news coverage (and social media),” he writes, “does not necessarily reflect the emotional state of those within an area.” And yet, he explains, media outlets shape public perception. He also notes that social media can be especially important in priming perceptions about racism, particularly among younger people.
Steven Pinker has made a career out of showing empirically how much better off we are compared to centuries past, and why we should be less cynical than we tend to be. In writing about increasing media negativity and its impact on public perception, he begs us to appreciate that “as we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen.” Unfortunately, since the journalism industry does not provide incentives to avoid exaggerating and overfocusing on the negative, it’s difficult to imagine that this will happen any time soon.