Lori Lopez
Feb 27, 2018 · 11 min read

The below is an excerpt from a Knight Foundation report which explores how Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, and Asian-American Twitter — interact with the news and offers recommendations to strengthen the relationship between journalists and these communities.

Opportunities and Struggles in Reporting on Asian American Twitter

Asian American Twitter is relatively small in comparison to the size of Black and Feminist Twitter, which makes sense for a group that is only 5% of the U.S. population. But Asian Americans on Twitter are notably the fastest growing of all three groups, and their digital conversations are deeply intertwined with coverage of Asian Americans in mainstream journalism. This includes both the frequent sharing of news articles by Asian Americans on Twitter, and the frequent news coverage of issues that were raised by Asian American communities on Twitter. One reason for these trends may be that Asian Americans have fairly positive relationships with journalists and mainstream journalism coverage. Many Asian American activists create Twitter campaigns with the hope that journalists will notice and call attention to issues that are otherwise being ignored, such as violence against Asian Americans or the invisibility of Asian Americans in Hollywood. When Asian Americans are contacted by journalists about their tweets and hashtag campaigns, it is seen as a signal that their activism has been effective, and they are generally pleased with the reporting that ensues — particularly when stories are written by Asian American journalists.

This does not mean that all coverage of Asian America is good coverage, as there are still plenty of concerns about journalists misunderstanding the issues, failing to effectively depict the diversity of the community, or reifying negative stereotypes. Nonetheless, Asian Americans interviewed for this study often spoke passionately about how they still failed to see their stories represented in mainstream journalism at all, and how they felt that this reflected the widespread belief that Asian American issues just didn’t matter. Twitter gave Asian Americans an ability to challenge these injustices and rise to public consciousness, even if only for a moment.

In the sections that follow, these key observations are explored:

· Asian Americans use Twitter as a tool for anti-racism organizing, but see themselves as creating temporary coalitions rather than sustaining a long-term digital community.

· Asian Americans on Twitter tend to trust individual reporters over specific outlets, and the reporters they trusted were Asian Americans who had a track record of good reporting on Asian American issues.

· Asian Americans are hungry for more news coverage, as long as reporters work to become part of their communities and accurately reflect their complexities.

· Although they do not self-identify as activists, Asian American journalists participate in activism alongside Twitter users when they are successful in pitching stories that are important to Asian Americans, and writing them in a way that is authentic to their own backgrounds.

Asian American Twitter as Temporary Anti-Racism Coalition

Many Asian American Twitter users felt that there was not a singular or stable “Asian American Twitter” that could compare to what they recognized as “Black Twitter.” They identified a small number of prominent Asian American Twitter users who consistently contribute to dialogue about Asian American issues, including a number of individuals who represented hybrid roles that spanned media production and activism/community organizing. But most considered Asian American Twitter to be a fluid collective that would coalesce momentarily “in celebration or outrage” and then fade away. One respondent stated, “Asian American Twitter happens in moments, it’s not a fixed space in quite the same way as Black Twitter. It only surfaces when it needs to exist.” Many felt that they did not see the same level of community support (“we don’t necessarily defend each other, or boost each other up”) or cohesiveness from Asian American Twitter as they saw in Black Twitter.

When Asian Americans momentarily rise to visibility on Twitter, they use it to call attention to neglected instances of racial injustice — against Asian Americans, but also in solidarity with other communities of color. Some of the most commonly identified moments when Asian American Twitter materialized were in response to casting and representational issues in Hollywood. Hashtags such as #whitewashedout, #aaironfist, #iammajor, #makemulanright, and #starringjohncho reference the outrage from Asian Americans when white actors were cast to play Asian American roles. Beyond casting issues, Asian Americans also responded collectively to moments like the episode of The Walking Dead in which Asian American actor Steve Yeun’s character Glen was killed by being beaten with a baseball bat — a tragic character death that was also reminiscent of the brutal murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin in the 1980s.

In this vein, there have also been many instances where violence, discrimination, bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against Asian Americans were seen to be reported by Twitter users long before seeing it in mainstream news. For instance, Asian Americans used Twitter to call attention to the racial dynamics of the mistreatment of passenger David Dao on the United flight. Participants argued that mainstream journalism was not discussing Dao’s race, but they strongly felt that his Asian identity contributed to his treatment on the airplane and in the coverage that followed. The hashtag #ThisIs2016 rose to prominence after Michael Luo, a high-profile Asian American journalist at the New York Times, used it to describe his own experiences of anti-Asian racism.

But one of the narratives that was most central to participants’ descriptions of the way that Asian Americans were coming together on Twitter was to support other communities of color. In particular, they commonly spoke about Asian Americans who were politically aligned with the Black Lives Matter social movement with hashtags such as #Asians4BlackLives and with Latinx communities using hashtags such as #HeretoStay and #ImmigrantHeritageMonth. There was a lot of frustration around the fact that Asian American cross-racial alliances were often elided in mainstream media. One participant described the campaigns surrounding #OscarsSoWhite: “It was an act of solidarity amongst marginalized groups but it became a wedge issue, and a lot of that was because of how it was covered.” The term “wedge issue” refers to the fact that Asian Americans are often pitted against other minorities, rather than being understood as politically aligned, which is the explicit political goal of many Asian American participants on Twitter.

Amongst Asian American Twitter users who do rise to visibility through the use of retweeted hashtags, there are many high-profile professionals. This includes actors, authors, activists, scholars and journalists — for example, Constance Wu, Phil Yu, Jeff Yang, Michael Luo, and Jeremy Lin. Many of the Twitter accounts that are used to propel hashtags into mainstream conversations are those of activist organizations or media outlets. This is in contrast to the idea that an ordinary citizen can use their personal Twitter account to contribute to this kind of message circulation. Ordinary citizens do sometimes manage to contribute to Twitter virality, such as some of the most prominently retweeted message for #makemulanright and #beingasian. But it was much more common for the most retweeted message to have been sent by prominent Asian Americans who already were well-known outside of Twitter.

Developing Trust with Asian American Journalists

When asked what kinds of journalism they found most trustworthy or were most likely to share with their followers, participants did not name any news outlets. Instead, they named specific journalists such as Jay Caspian Kang and Kat Chow, whose work they found to be well-researched, nuanced, and fleshed out. They particularly were satisfied when stories carefully contextualized the complex issues that arose in Twitter conversations. They wanted reporters to consider the way that every individual tweet is actually part of a larger set of communities, conversations, and racial politics. Participants noted that any single journalistic outlet could have a mixture of stories — some that did a good job representing Asian American issues and sourcing Asian Americans, and others that were disappointing because they relied only on negative stereotypes or showed a lack of research. This is why they only came to trust individual reporters whose track record demonstrated that they understood and cared about the specificities of Asian American experiences.

All of the interviewed participants stated that the stories they trusted the most were the ones written by Asian Americans, while the stories that were most inaccurate were written by non-Asians, specifically white reporters. One participant stated: “Mainstream journalism operates from a space that heavily defaults to white issues. How do I trust this perspective when they don’t make the assumption that ‘people’ includes non-white people?”

Common frustrations about the way journalists reported on Twitter conversations included failing to wait for permission to be given when posting tweets, and listing the tweets without properly researching where they came from, whether or not there was a coalition behind the tweet. They also complained about moments when reporters showed a poor understanding of racialized tropes and concepts, such as the difference between “whitewashing” and “the white savior trope” in stories inspired by hashtags like #whitewashedout and #AAironfist. Stories that left out South and Southeast Asians were also seen to misrepresent the true diversity of Asian America. There was a desire to see more complicated and nuanced issues covered in mainstream reportage. One participant described the way she had grown weary of “rehashing the same conversation over and over again with no progress, no new takes.” They encouraged journalists to help move conversations forward, rather than always using mainstream journalism as a site for “Asian American Studies 101.”

Asian Americans Want More Coverage

A common theme within interviews was that participants at a basic level simply wanted to see more coverage of Asian American issues in mainstream journalism. They saw their engagements on Twitter productively contributing to this hoped-for outcome, and saw news coverage as an indication that their activism had been successful in pushing their issues into the spotlight.

Nearly all of their past engagements with journalists who had contacted them through Twitter had been positive, and they were very receptive to being contacted in the future. One participant stated, “I was pleasantly surprised that in most cases, the people who interviewed me gave me plenty of chance to let me speak, they let me talk about things in a complex way, and they tried to represent that.” When journalists contacted them via Twitter, they liked knowing the reporter’s background and being able to hear what the focus or intention of this particular story would be. None felt like they had been misled or deceived by a reporter, and few had been disappointed with the stories that resulted.

Of the engagements with journalists that were disappointing, most stemmed from complications around attribution or failing to give proper credit to different participants in Twitter activism or campaigns. One participant described the conflict as such: “The media is not well equipped to deal with movements or stories that are created by movements or large groups of people where there’s not one main character. When you talk about stories that happen on Twitter that’s not how it works. The story is, why did all these very different people feel sufficiently compelled to come together to work on this thing?” Another mentioned that stories about the hashtag #whitewashedout had failed to properly describe the large team of participants who had carefully organized to carry out the campaign. Even after speaking directly to members of the team, many articles seemed to attribute the visibility of the hashtag to tweets by comedian Margaret Cho.

Beyond hiring more Asian American journalists, their hope was that journalists would broaden and diversify their own Twitter following habits so that they could stumble upon different topics and users. When discussing Twitter campaigns and phenomena that are complex and potentially leaderless, they suggested finding ways to crowdsource questions so that the responses might reflect the messy and contradictory ways that Twitter campaigns are actually organized. Reporters should seek to become part of the communities they cover, to the best of their abilities.

Asian American Journalists Engage in Media Activism

The journalists interviewed for this story were selected because they identified as Asian American and were extremely active on Twitter, with between 10,000-40,000 published tweets each. They wrote for a variety of publications, ranging from large-scale legacy media to smaller online publishers. They covered a number of different beats, including entertainment, politics, breaking news, and racial issues. But one aspect that united their work was that they saw themselves as playing an important role in supporting Asian American activism through being individuals who brought their own personal backgrounds and sensibilities to their reporting, and shed light on stories that flew under the mainstream radar.

Twitter was viewed as an extremely productive tool for learning about new story ideas, and many had come to rely on the platform for a wide array of purposes. One said, “I definitely use Twitter to surface stories, and see what conversations people are having. Also for seeing stories that are reported on a smaller level, and just kind of gauging people’s reactions.” They were not particularly focused on hashtags or trending topics, though some had reported on hashtag-related issues in the past. Rather, they checked their Twitter feed to learn about the topics that were important to Asian Americans. Others described Twitter as “auxiliary” to their reporting; they might primarily turn to the trades or press releases to learn about what was going on in something like the entertainment world, but then could turn to Twitter for emotional responses that went deeper than the analysis provided by professional spokespeople.

Many Asian American journalists also relied on Twitter for interview sources. They described having significant success reaching out to people through a simple DM, and some said that Twitter users would DM them with story suggestions as well. One reporter described the willingness of Asian American Twitter users to share their posts or give quotes in relation to the issue at hand, but also her own approach and values: “I was offering these people a very wide audience to air their grievances to, so that was helpful. Typically, I’m coming to people stating why I want to hear from them — I think you have valuable insight, I think you’re an authority. I try to assure people I’m not using them as a prop or for a sound bite that will make them look bad. I want to help them get to a larger audience. Part of what Asians are being stereotyped for is being passive, so people really wanted to speak up.”

Asian American journalists had stories of fighting to develop a focus on Asian American communities in their reportage. They appreciated the support that they felt from Asian American audiences, because it helped them to convince their editors that this was a beat worth pursuing. The journalists interviewed for this study had not experienced very much negative backlash from Twitter communities, but understood that this was sensitive territory. One participant stated: “If you mess up online and you have an online persona, the internet will destroy you. I’ve learned to be more mindful, people are really sensitive.”

Asian American journalists are accurate in their understanding that productive relationships with Asian American communities on Twitter, and more generally, are connected to their own identities and investment in the community. Although they still described their reporting as objective and impartial, they also recognized that being recognizable as Asian American made them the best person to report on those topics. One stated, “I’m part of this community too. I try to frame my reporting as, I’m exploring this thing, but I’m also a part of it too. It’s something that’s very connected to me.”

Lori Lopez

Written by

Associate Professor of Communication Arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison

Informed and Engaged

Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

Lori Lopez

Written by

Associate Professor of Communication Arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison

Informed and Engaged

Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

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