Pew's social media study pushes all the wrong buttons

Most Americans like to poke fun of just how tech savvy Asian-Americans are. The stereotypical assumption is often accurate when it comes to finding the coolest social app or digital designer.

Experienced business travelers know that if you want to find the latest generation gadget, go to Seoul or Hong Kong or Tokyo. This fact, however, seems to be lost on the well-respected Pew Research Center.  How else can you explain their latest work, “The State of Social Media Users,” which remarkably excludes Asian-Americans from the study?

The February 2013 report of social media users has either forgot about Asian-Americans, lumped them in with their white counterparts or refused to score them. Why would Pew publish a comparison of social media users that doesn’t track Asian-Americans?  Perhaps it might be that Asians’ social media habits score so high against other races that it might not be an interesting or alarming comparison.


Demographic research shows the rapid growth of Asian-Americans – an increase of 46 percent between the 2000 and 2010 Census. And even though Asian-Americans comprise a smaller part of the population than other groups, their growth rate is four times that of the general population. So why wouldn’t Pew want to compare Asians to the other minority groups?

It’s not the first time policy makers, the mainstream media, advertisers, think tanks or influential research groups have forgotten about Asian-Americans.  Sadly, it probably won’t be the last.

The studies that ignore the rise of Asian-Americans and the Asian impact on American culture not only deprive Asians a seat at the table, but it denies our society as a whole valuable information.  Dismissing Asian-Americans when it comes to social media is a particularly bad idea.  According to the most recent Nielsen Social Media Report, Asian-Americans are the most likely group to have visited a social network, interacted with social media advertising and made purchases through social media.  So why are we ignoring the leaders’ habits?

There are far greater consequences for those minorities left behind in studies like Pew’s latest.  Government and non-profit funding for social, health and economic programs use these studies to make grant decisions. While national organizations like Pew marginalize Asian-Americans in their studies, critical research is left to smaller, regional groups and universities that don’t have the same clout. If an audience isn’t counted, it doesn’t get any attention, funding or support for pressing issues. Consequently, myths about Asian-Americans as the “model minority” prevail.  In the U.S., the common perception holds that Asians are harder working, more educated, higher earning and more successful than other ethnic groups.

Stereotypes like this, however positive they may seem, are detrimental in that they gloss over the serious problems facing Asian-Americans.  Pew’s refusal to include Asians in their social media study creates an over-hyped distraction that diverts attention from the threats and problems facing Asian-Americans.  Every ethnic group has unique and inherent problems that should not be overlooked by false narratives.  For example, black Americans have diabetes at nearly twice the rate of whites and nearly half the Hispanic population considers access to affordable health care a “very serious” problem. The successful Asian stereotype also means less than 1-in-3 Asian-American children receive mental health care treatment when parents determine there’s a need, but fear the stigma attached to seeking treatment.

Are Asian-Americans perceived as non-existent, unimportant or maybe just honorary Caucasian? The problems facing researchers in counting smaller groups is understandably an inconvenience.  Asian-Americans are frequently undercounted because of linguistic and cultural barriers -- the result of grouping together dozens of peoples from diverse ancestries that sometimes share little more than a common region of the world. But the invisibility created by being left out also creates countless problems.  Health needs are not met.  Funds for social services are unfairly distributed. Politicians and policy makers ignore the problems they don’t even know exist.  Entrepreneurs, particularly social entrepreneurs, miss opportunities to generate business, jobs and tax revenues.

Studies that omit key groups are a waste of time and lack credibility because their conclusions are based on only part of the picture.  It seems to me, Pew should want to study the social media habits of those leading the digital revolution.

Julia Y. Huang, CEO of interTrend Communications - a national advertising agency connecting FORTUNE 500 companies with Asian-American audiences.