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Protesters march down a city street and carry signs, one that reads, “Stop Asian hate,” and the other, “Put avocado on racism so people will pay attention.”
People march against anti-Asian violence and racism in Los Angeles, California, on March 27.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The spectacle of anti-Asian violence on Instagram

Asian news sites like NextShark brought attention to anti-Asian racism — at the cost of circulating graphic imagery.

The resolute expression on 83-year-old Ngoc Pham’s swollen, bruised face is hard to forget. So is the image of 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie, who was filmed in the aftermath of her assault, clutching a pack of ice in her left hand and wielding a wooden board with her right. With it, she was motioning in the direction of her and Pham’s white attacker, who was being wheeled away on a stretcher, bloodied from Xie’s board.

The assault against Pham and Xie on San Francisco’s Market Street occurred one day after the Atlanta spa shootings, stoking yet another wave of outrage and fear among Asian Americans. The seniors’ battered faces and testimonies garnered viral attention from various Instagram accounts dedicated to aggregating news, resources, and cultural content about Asian Americans. These accounts — some of which have been around a handful of years, while others which have popped up in recent months — have names like NextShark, AsianFeed, Asians With Attitudes, and Stop AAPI Hate. On NextShark, the most popular of the bunch, the post of Xie garnered millions of views, leading thousands to donate to her recovery GoFundMe.

Seen together, the bold typeface headlines, pixelated images, and reposted tweets on these aggregator accounts reveal how something is very wrong in America, or at least the sliver of America that Asian Americans inhabit. They highlight disturbing incidents that don’t often reach the mainstream, sometimes plucked from local news reports or self-reported social media posts: a 65-year-old Filipina woman getting “punched and kicked in broad daylight in NYC,” a 64-year-old Asian woman “stabbed to death while walking her dog in Riverside,” an Asian woman being randomly attacked while walking by Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

They also document microaggressions and actual aggressions that don’t rise to the level of explicit violence, like how an Asian woman and her children were spat on and called racial slurs at a subway station in Times Square. Headlines are easy to forget, but images and videos linger in one’s memory. For viewers, there is little need for captions and context when the violence is so blatant, so hard to scroll past. Occasionally, there is some “good” news on the diversity and representation front, and posts that don’t explicitly involve tragedy, like how a young Asian mother’s TikTok explaining #StopAsianHate to her children went viral, or how Minari star Youn Yuh-jung became the first Asian actress to win the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Supporting Actress award. Yet the snippets of racism and shocking violence are what leave a lasting impression.

These news aggregators exist in stark contrast to the aestheticized, pastel-colored Instagram slideshows most users are familiar with, although some verified pages, like Stop AAPI Hate and Hate Is a Virus, abide by more polished design conventions. They have amassed a following of primarily young Asian Americans by posting content that startles the viewer into paying attention, rather than packaging it into something palatable.

Over the past three months, this was how I came to hear of — and be reminded of — the brutal attacks against elderly Asian Americans: through my Instagram Stories, coupled with graphic imagery and outrage commentary. To some, the videos are proof of a surge in hate crimes, even as self-reported numbers offer an incomplete summary of these racist incidents.

On my Instagram feed, the sharing and resharing of these posts appears to be mostly contained within young Asian American social circles. The result is a relentless cycle of aggregated trauma, spurred by the intention of amplifying the egregious nature of these attacks that have become a near-weekly occurrence. For the young or tech-savvy, who are arguably the diaspora’s most vocal proponents, sharing such content is a subversive reaction to conditioned expectations of silence. Posting has become a means of processing.

“I normally always feel so helpless when I see these posts and stories that I know happen daily, and there isn’t much that I can do about them,” said Tanya Dang, a tattoo artist in Orange, California, who is active in reposting images and videos of such violence. “I’ve had a lot of people who follow me who didn’t know it’s a ‘thing’ that goes on, so I continue to help start a conversation about it and bring awareness.”

The existence of these Instagram accounts urges others — Asian or otherwise — to not avert their eyes, to acknowledge the reality of the violence: the blurry CCTV footage of idle witnesses standing by as an elderly person is beaten on the sidewalk, or the discolored contusions resulting from trauma. “It’s almost like you need something really, really jarring to make people believe that there is discrimination against Asian Americans,” an Atlanta-based lawyer told the New York Times after the deadly shootings at three Asian-owned businesses. But if the main audience is Asian Americans, how long will it be before jarring becomes emotionally and psychologically harmful? What hole do these accounts fill, and why are many young Asian Americans gravitating toward this style of coverage?

The fragmented nature of the Asian American news ecosystem

The Asian American news ecosystem, much like the diaspora’s identity, is fragmented by age, language, ethnicity, and geography, among many other factors. For first-generation Asian immigrants, information networks are generally siloed, according to Rachel Kuo, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who studies media and social movements. Different ethnic groups communicate and receive news on different chat and social media platforms beyond the tech behemoths of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’ve previously written on how immigrants from mainland China tend to use WeChat, while those from Taiwan and Hong Kong are more likely to use Line and WhatsApp, respectively. Korean Americans have KakaoTalk, Vietnamese Americans mostly rely on Facebook, and some Hmong Americans communicate via conference call technology. People aren’t limited to one app or medium, but many immigrants gravitate toward native-language media — television, radio, and print media — that is produced in the US or from their home country, or rely on conversations with friends or family to keep up.

As a consumer demographic, Asian Americans are known to be early adopters of technology. Despite this behavior, their consumer potential has for decades been discounted by mainstream media organizations and television networks. This neglect has left a gaping hole where there is a clear demand for identity-driven content, especially among younger or English-proficient Asians who incline toward a cultural pan-Asian American identity.

For instance, since 2018, the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, which covers the cultural nuances of being young and Asian, has amassed a global membership of more than 1.9 million people, with various other offshoot groups, like Subtle Asian Dating and Subtle Asian Cooking. Naturally, many have turned to content creators and insulated social networks to fulfill this media diet and search for community. It’s a trend that dovetails with a decades-old “realization that traditional news won’t serve their communities’ needs,” said Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association. And while distrust in traditional media is on the decline among all Americans, she doesn’t think there is an “active distrust” among Asian Americans, but more a resignation of “insufficient representation.”

In the past handful of years, several mainstream news corporations have seized on this need as well, creating verticals like NBC Asian America and HuffPost Asian Voices. Then there are the Asian-led magazines like Slant’d, Hyphen, and The Margins by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that publish lengthier cultural analyses or personal essays; and a host of Asian American personalities and micro-celebrities who’ve made their name off of blogs (Jenn of Reappropriate), podcasts (Phil Yu and Jeff Yang of Angry Asian Man), and other forms of media commentary. It was the advent of the internet (and later blogs, YouTube, and social media) that made community-focused content not just possible but capable of reaching larger audiences.

“With blogging culture in the 2000s, there was a democratization of content, which is now further catalyzed by social media platforms,” Tacuyan Underwood told me. In some ways, Instagram pages like NextShark and AsianFeed (which have respective websites) are a natural evolution of the Asian blogosphere, since “the rate at which information is shared is faster than ever,” she added. “Now, it seems like people don’t even bother writing out full posts. Platforms like Instagram allow for content to be condensed, and news is presented through a carousel, a slideshow, or a tweet.”

The function of Instagram — the purveyor of bite-size, shareable slides of information — is not necessarily innovative, though. For decades, Asian immigrants have relied on insular, community media networks to share and exchange information, from the international to the hyper-local. What is new is how these digital platforms have helped set the agenda for a specifically pan-Asian American reader, one who is young and usually second-generation or English-proficient.

The platform, though, can inadvertently flatten identity-driven discourse by establishing an illusion of broad consensus that smooths over loaded, complicated histories. Instagram is not a replacement for activism and other forms of organizing work, but it helps get people to care. As a result, the most visible pages wield increasingly greater influence in setting the cultural — and thus political — agenda of what average Americans perceive as “Asian American issues.”

Covid-19 and rising anti-Asian sentiments led Asian Americans to seek out community — and relatable content

The racialized discussions surrounding the coronavirus in its early months kick-started conversations about sinophobia and anti-Asian fears. “We saw this narrative early on, about what was happening to Asian businesses, combined with microaggressions and threats of violence, usually against Asian elders,” Kuo said. But it was then quickly pushed aside for coverage of lockdowns, the ailing economy, and the health impacts of Covid-19. “With the media, things come and go out of frame, and a topic like anti-Asian racism was swept away when the coronavirus landed in the US.”

Media organizations and accounts dedicated to covering the minutiae of Asian American culture, then, filled that gap in the news market. The pandemic broadly catalyzed the explosion of Asian-adjacent creative content, and within the past year, Instagram has emerged as the unofficial destination for community news consumption and content distribution for young Asian Americans.

“We want a space where Asians aren’t just included, but they’re the center of the conversation,” said Michael Lai, the 22-year-old co-founder and CEO of AsianFeed. “It’s important to build upon our common experiences to build community through a formalized media platform.” AsianFeed is a student-run, Gen Z-focused news site and Instagram page that was only founded in February but, to Lai’s point, has garnered more than 65,000 Instagram followers in that short time.

There’s a lot of general intrigue in Asian culture and its nuances, he added, not just from Asian Americans but from people outside of the diaspora as well. The rise of K-pop and the ubiquity of certain foods and drinks, like ramen, phở, and bubble tea demonstrate this wide interest. In turn, Asian news aggregators that have taken a broad Asian-focused approach (which veers toward a “boba liberalism” representative politics) have tapped into this missing link. The content is more specific, and therefore more satisfying for their Asian readers, compared to mainstream understanding. And in this moment, these aggregators feel that they “have a large microphone,” according to Lai, especially since mainstream news “doesn’t do an adequate job of consistently updating the community on Asian-adjacent news.”

The pandemic was a watershed moment for NextShark, one of the more popular and longstanding Asian content sites, which bills itself as the “leading source for Asian American news” for a millennial and Gen Z English-speaking audience. In some ways, they were prepared for this moment, having spent years building a devoted Asian readership.

“I feel like we broke every single rule out there when it comes to Instagram,” Benny Luo, the founder and CEO of NextShark, told me. Most of their Instagram audience is between ages 18 and 30, while their Facebook readers skew older. “People are always talking about having a small percentage of text, but even with the algorithm changes, we saw our traffic briefly take a hit, but we have such a strong following of Asian American readers who just wanted to consume the content regardless.”

NextShark wasn’t launched with the intention of covering Asian American news. When the site was founded in 2013, Luo was focused on covering entrepreneurship and startup culture from a millennial’s perspective. Content about Asian American business leaders and founders, interestingly enough, always seemed to bring in more engagement and readers, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the site began to actively cover more Asian-adjacent topics. The shift was so gradual that Luo and his team didn’t think to change the name: The “next” part of NextShark refers to the next generation, while the “shark” came from Luo’s background as a poker player.

In 2016, the site received messages from readers interested in reading about Asian athletes for the Olympics, and by 2017, NextShark had entirely pivoted to covering Asian American news. The pandemic’s arrival in the US and its racialized perception led to more opportunities for coverage (some drawn from reader news tips or local reports of incidents involving Asian Americans or businesses), according to Waylae Gregoire, editor-in-chief and head of business development. “We saw a slow and steady uptick in increased viewership with the pandemic, and it sharply rose as more Asian Americans became involved with the social justice movement,” Gregoire said, adding that the company saw “growth across all platforms.” In the last month, NextShark’s Instagram account grew by 70,000 followers, according to data from the analytics tracker IG Blade.

Perhaps it is too blunt to quote the age-old adage of news programming “If it bleeds, it leads.” A vocal subset of Asian Americans have warned of violence in response to racialized perceptions of the coronavirus; some have spent the past year ringing the alarm bells, only to be disregarded until video footage has made it undeniable and unavoidable. So if these attacks are happening, regardless of whether there’s mainstream news coverage, why not take the matter into the community’s hands?

Platforms prioritize a certain type of visual aesthetic or engaging content that leans into the realm of shareable emotions. “If you have something like Instagram, which has been designed for a type of lifestyle sharing, what does it mean to make violence legible?” Kuo said. “It does seem that people gravitate toward feel-good news or the extreme, like violence. What does it mean to render violence in the Instagram format?”

Instagram activism relies on radical messages that are modified and repackaged for mass consumption. In some ways, the graphic imagery and violent reports circulated in the Asian social media sphere are the antithesis of this aesthetic. Advertisers shy away from it. “This stuff isn’t brand-friendly, at least for us,” Luo said. “Some people might think we’re profiting off of this, but the truth is, [advertising] agencies don’t like it.” NextShark wants to cover good news, he added; its editorial team’s mental health has floundered with the influx of bad news. Still, that doesn’t change that this is the depressing reality of current Asian American life.

However, the inundation of violent images can create a sort of psychic numbing: It’s easy for the details to blur, and the random nature of the attacks can create a pervasive sense of fear and helplessness. We have a limited emotional capacity for trauma. Individual stories like that of Pham and Xie, the Asian elders who were attacked in San Francisco, are impactful. “Individual stories and individual photographs can be effective for a while,” the psychologist Paul Slovic previously told Vox. “They capture our attention — they get us to see the reality, to glimpse the reality at a scale we can understand and connect to emotionally.”

Social media can be a democratizing force, allowing many to self-report incidents that aren’t deemed newsworthy enough for the nightly news. But if there’s no clear solution at hand, research shows that people start to disconnect. “There should be thought behind the content: Is it more solutions-oriented, or is the focus solely on violence?” said Tacuyan Underwood of AAJA. “We need to look at whether these images are perpetuating violence, or false constructs that might pit communities of color against each other.”

In major hubs like Boston, New York, and San Francisco, independent organizers and community members have used social media to crowdfund cab rides or connect solo pedestrians with volunteers who walk them home. These stories are sometimes highlighted on these sites and Instagram pages (usually after the fact). Due to the representative nature of their coverage, they tend to applaud surface-level solutions, such as increased policing, a debated topic within Asian American circles. These pages sometimes appear to gloss over political nuance, and some feeds are a whiplash of coverage: incidents of racism or violence juxtaposed against diversity benchmarks. Regardless, they’ve maintained a rapt audience.

For some Asian Americans, bringing attention to these incidents — sometimes by recirculating violent imagery — is a way to not disconnect. Dang, the tattoo artist, told me she “hates watching the [violent] videos” but forces herself to confront them, despite the burden that imposes on her mental health. “I personally cry from any post because I’m sensitive, but whether it’s [affecting] Asians, Latinos, or Black people, I’ve learned to try to separate myself from the event and just focus on what I can do,” she told me.

The future of Asian American identity is being shaped online

These news sites and social pages don’t claim to be reflective of all Asian Americans or the complex history of the label, but in some ways, they are major contributors to this greater conversation around what it means to be Asian American in 2021 and beyond. “There are many challenges to building a community, but I think the long-term solution — and this isn’t a perfect idea — is to focus on how much more we have in common with each other than the differences,” said Lai of AsianFeed. The page sprinkles in posts about activism and racist incidents while occasionally emphasizing the pop culture markers of Asian American identity: food, bubble tea, K-pop, or films like Crazy Rich Asians. The content leans toward a vision of pan-Asian solidarity, if such an idea is even achievable and comprehensive to the influx of new Asian immigrants.

Others argue there should be nuances in class, immigration status, and country of origin — distinctions that aren’t necessarily divisive but are too complex to box in behind a simple slogan. Such Asian American-specific content, however, might not be grounds for lasting political solidarity, although it might garner cultural traction. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing voting bloc in the United States, but this demographic shift is driven by immigrants from a host of different countries. To scholars of Asian American history and political activists, “Asian Americanness is a political identity with a political history.” According to Lori Kido Lopez, an associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, the reduction of that identity to “something that can be consumed in a mainstream way erases the radical roots of that history,” which was born out of anti-imperialist and civil rights activism in the 1960s.

The internet has warped our history of these identity categories, reorienting Asian Americanness around the liberal language of diversity, representation, and recognition, which are heavily individualized. Our collective identity currently feels sustained by a mutual sense of pain. The current strain of violence appears to be directed at anyone who appears to be Asian; nuances of class and gender are often subcategories under the overarching umbrella of racism — although it’s clear that older Asians and working-class immigrants are among the most vulnerable. And that’s the agonizing potential these Instagram pages tap into: It could happen to any of us.

“I always imagine that it could be a family member of mine, or a family member of my friends or the people I know,” said Dang. “It breaks my heart that this violence happens more often than we can imagine.”

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