An Edmonton researcher is hoping to uncover and analyze Canada’s hidden racism using Twitter as his measuring stick.

University of Alberta sociology PhD candidate Irfan Chaudhry spent three months analyzing a cross-section of tweets made in six Canadian cities: Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

Chaudhry, who self-identifies as a person of colour, says he’s only experienced “direct racism” once or twice in his life.

As a rule, Canadians are too polite to call attention to themselves or others, he says.

“People don't want to come across as obviously being racist or it's not politically correct,” he said.

On Twitter, though, it’s another story.

While Chaudhry says racism is a topic that many people especially in Canada try to avoid, it is evident in the comparatively anonymous online world.

“It ... showcases that blurred line between our online world and our offline world,” said Chaudhry.

“That’s where you get the comfort of the medium,” he said. “You’re still fairly distant from the person you're tweeting. You don't have to see them face to face, you don’t have to see their reaction so there’s really no accountability. I think that’s why the medium itself allows people to openly have hateful sentiment.”

"No one wants to be labelled as ‘you’re a racist.’”

The researcher says he chose Twitter as his medium of study because the social media platform does not filter out or censor any search terms.

Starting with a list of racially-based search terms, Chaudhry then used geo-tagged tweets to look for “the most common racist terms associated with visible minority groups and also Caucasian groups in Canada.” 

In total, Chaudhry looked at about 2,000 tweets, finding about 750 which were negative in context.

Of those, about half were made in response to ‘real-time scenarios,’ says Chaudhry

Irfan Chaudhry

PhD candidate Irfan Chaudhry is using Twitter to study discrimination in Canada. He says there is a clear divide between what Canadians are willing to tweet and what they would say out loud. (CBC)

“‘Oh I can’t believe I’m sitting on a plane and I’m sitting next to this person and person from X-racist term used there,’” Chaudhry recites as a common theme.

"Having that be about half the tweets collected was really surprising to me,” he said.

Chaudhry also found a smaller but noticeable trend of people fighting back against racial slurs, calling out users for tweeting discriminatory messages.

“That’s what makes Twitter and racism, specifically, interesting because you have two sides of the coin, so to speak,” he said.

“You have those individuals that may be tweeting the racist things, but then you also have other individuals who when they see them are speaking out about it and they’re countering that narrative.”

Ranking racism in Canada

And while Chaudhry says he wouldn’t be comfortable ranking the six Canadian cities in terms of ‘most racist,’ he did notice trends.

“What’s interesting, however, is cities like Edmonton and Calgary and Winnipeg cities that have a higher aboriginal population I noticed that the negative term associated with that groups is used most often in those cities.

“Cities like Toronto and Montreal two cities with a higher black population the negative associated with those groups was higher,” he said, noting his results also correlate with other studies on discrimination in Canada.

Chaudry submitted his results to be published this week and will present his findings at the Social Media and Society International Conference in September.

He hopes to do an even larger study of racism on Twitter in the future.