On 16 March 2021, a man carried out a series of shootings at three massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia which claimed the lives of eight people; six of whom were Asian women. Reports shortly revealed the identity of the suspected shooter: Robert Aaron Long – a 21-year-old white man. Shortly following the attack, both mainstream social media and extremist online spaces reacted quickly to the news and they commented on the shooter’s motives despite the lack of confirmation regarding his ideology or aims. The fact that a majority of victims were Asian raised the possibility that it could be racially motivated and their gender made others wonder if this was an additional factor. The following day, the Sheriff’s Office announced that Long “took responsibility for the shootings” and had what he called “a sex addiction…” Police concluded, however, that it is still early on in the investigation.
Speculating on assumption-based conclusions is never a good practice as it can lead to disastrous results. However, the extremist chatter in reaction to this tragic event offers a window into the dynamics of anti-East Asian rhetoric and the nature of toxic narratives shaped by a specific event, i.e. an incident that was immediately perceived as being a racially motivated attack by a white perpetrator against East Asians/people of East Asian descent. I have decided to use the specific term “East Asian” to prevent confusion. “Asian” covers a large geographic area and using the term “anti-Asian” would broadly include other forms of bigotry outside of “anti-East Asian prejudice” such as anti-Muslim sentiments. It is important to note here that the shooter’s misogyny does not automatically rule out other motives – misogyny and racism frequently intertwine and as officials stated, the investigation is currently ongoing.
Before examining the various emerging narratives circulating on Telegram and 4Chan, providing a wider context regarding anti-E. Asian sentiments is necessary. According to a July 2020 PEW Research poll, “a majority of East Asian adults (58%) say it is more common for people to express racially insensitive views about people who are East Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.” Another report from Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate, a coalition formed in response to rises in xenophobia during the pandemic, received 3,795 reported incidents from March 2020 to February 2021. Non-physical interactions accounted for approximately 88% of reports while physical assault constituted about 11%. Notably, women encountered hate incidents 2.3 times more than men. In addition, public figures, including the former President of the United States, using the terms “Chinavirus” and “Kung Flu” certainly have not contributed towards stemming the current spike in anti-E. Asian bigotry.
Despite the recent focus on anti-E. Asian bigotry, there is over a century of historical precedent for discrimination against East Asians in the United States such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Executive Order 9066 of 1942 which forced Japanese-Americans into internment camps. During the Civil Rights Movement, East Asian and Black activists united in solidarity but more recently, this historical legacy has been frequently forgotten. The model minority myth fed manufactured tensions between East Asian and Black communities; a myth spun from a 1966 New York Times story written by a sociologist called “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” In short, this damaging story compared Japanese-American and Black communities by propping up the former as a prime example of an ideal ethnic minority in contrast to the latter who the author characterised as “self-destructive.” This essentialising narrative has since been used to divide people of colour. More specifically, it seeks to fortify a racial hierarchy that places Black Americans at the bottom by using a constructed narrative about another minority group as a tool of oppression. In 1992, tensions particularly increased during the Rodney King riots and memes currently circulating in white supremacist spaces frequently reference the history.
This brief overview is unfortunately overly simplified, but hopefully it has provided enough context to understand the complex dynamics that white supremacists and the far-right seek to exploit. Following the series of massage parlour shootings, accounts in extremist spaces on Telegram and 4Chan posted a variety of bigoted rhetoric and conspiratorial narratives.
Anti-E. Asian rhetoric included blaming Asians for the pandemic, insisting that the victims deserved to be killed, and celebrating the attack. Other posts used racial slurs for Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese people. Some messages echoed age-old Orientalist tropes such as the “yellow menace/peril” and the submissive East Asian women narrative.
Initially before any information was released about the suspect, a number of posts made guarantees that the shooter was Black. Other anti-Black messages frequently discussed anti-E. Asian prejudice expressed by Black Americans during the pandemic. Although non-E. Asian people of colour have verbally, and sometimes physically, abused East Asians, white supremacist and far-right framing attempts to play off of tensions between communities of colour (in this specific case, East Asian and Black Americans) while simultaneously promoting messaging that portrays Black people as violent criminals. The two-fold attack relies on 1) oversimplifying and exploiting the complex racial dynamics in American society and 2) incorporating racist anti-Black rhetoric. This is not to say that prejudice expressed by one minority group against another minority group should not be addressed, however, the key issue stems from extremists approaching a nuanced and complex subject matter in bad faith. They seek to propagandise and sensationalise.
Antisemitic content heavily relied on conspiratorial messaging. Posts of this nature claimed that the shooting was a Jewish-designed false flag to target whites and that Jews and Asians are banding together against whites. Antisemitic images accompanied numerous posts about “globalist” plots. Some comments insulted the shooter’s physical appearance and asserted that he must be Jewish as proven by a set of certain physical features.
In addition to bigotry, a range of conspiracies and speculations appeared. Users promoting these narratives insisted that the shooting was a false-flag psy op orchestrated by the Feds, a Jewish plot designed to increase hatred against whites, a government-planned attack that serves as a means to enact gun control and censorship, and a fabricated distraction meant to draw attention away from ‘Black on Asian’ crime by using whites as scapegoats. Some speculated that the ultimate goal of the false flag attack was to place blame on Donald Trump, Republicans and/or QAnon. Others speculated that the shooter was a white Antifa member, a paid actor, Jewish, or an incel. A smaller number of posts disavowed the shooter and expressed anger that he made it “worse for us (whites)” by carrying out an attack.
Other posts did not focus solely on race or conspiracies but instead incorporated racially tinged misogynist comments about women and more specifically, East Asian women. These messages frequently referenced East Asian women and relationships with white men. They also made fetishising jokes (i.e. “yellow fever”) and characterised the women as being desperate for/submissive to any available white man. In regard to the shooting, some users called the victims “sluts” among other misogynistic terms.
A noticeable number of posts referenced white supremacists’ neutrality, and in some cases, preference for East Asians calling them “honorary Aryans.” The relationship between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the model minority myth, and the perception that East Asian societies guard “their monoculture” all factor into these viewpoints. Although some white supremacists appear to accept Asians to varying degrees, the fact remains that many do not.
The varied narratives that emerged from far-right and white supremacist online spaces in response to the shootings demonstrates the layered complexities and intertwining nature of their bigotry. Although posts mostly did not allude to specific historical legacies or social dynamics, posts relied on readers’ assumed knowledge of topics such as model minorities, relationships between various communities of colour in the context of the United States/the events that shaped them, and World War II. As demonstrated, messaging frequently incorporated multiple forms of bigotry (for example, anti-Blackness, antisemitism, and misogyny) in the same post to achieve a variety of objectives and direct hatred towards specific demographic groups.
Extremist chatter following a tragic event can offer a unique window of opportunity for observing and documenting reactions – reactions that are unsurprisingly toxic and hateful. However, noting chatter patterns provides deeper insights into extremists’ construction of bigoted narratives and allows for better understandings of how extremists process large-scale violence during and after an event.
Since the pandemic, news articles and academic literature have increasingly focused on anti-East Asian bigotry but there remains a significant gap in comprehending how white supremacists and the far-right express anti-East Asian sentiments and/ or promote certain narratives about East Asians as a means to target other racial minorities. A more comprehensive examination on how these dynamics work would deepen the understanding of antisemitism, anti-Blackness and misogyny because, as this case study demonstrated, these intersectional subject matters are multi-faceted and frequently overlap in extremist spaces.