Airbnb hosts with 'distinctively Asian names' received fewer bookings during pandemic years, study shows

·3 min read

The rise of anti-Asian hate amid the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 has resulted in fewer bookings for Asian American hosts on Airbnb, as suggested by a recent study.

The new Harvard University study, titled “Scapegoating and Discrimination in Times of Crisis: Evidence from Airbnb,” revealed that Asian American hosts on the online home-sharing platform received fewer bookings than hosts of other ethnic backgrounds in the year anti-Asian sentiment was on the rise.

Researchers drew these findings after analyzing New York City data sourced from the website Inside Airbnb, which has records of Airbnb listings made in 2019 and 2020.

Their study, which was published on Aug. 3, also posits that the ability to view the names and profile photos of Airbnb hosts made it “easier for users to discriminate.”

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Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School associate professor and co-author of the study, noted: “If you give people information about race without being thoughtful about what it’s going to do, you are in some ways setting it up to facilitate discrimination.”

Researchers found that hosts with “distinctively Asian names” encountered a 12 percent decrease in guests compared to hosts with “White-sounding names” after January 2020. According to the study, these figures first became evident in the spring.

Luca also noted that Airbnb’s high review rate made it possible for the researchers to use reviews "as a proxy for bookings." They then used an algorithm that can identify “how likely a name is to be one ethnicity or another” to discern the hosts’ ethnicities.

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In a statement, Airbnb said it denounces “all forms of discrimination” and is “committed to fighting it proactively.” The company claimed that it is now “reviewing this research seriously to understand its basis.” It also acknowledged that the design of its platform could potentially allow discrimination since it still shows the names and profile photos of hosts and guests.

However, it also said that “measuring race based on name does not paint a full or accurate picture. Many hosts who would identify as Asian may not have ‘distinctively Asian names’ and therefore would not be included in the analysis.” The company added that a review of just over 900 hosts in New York City is an “extremely small sample size and inappropriate to extrapolate to the entirety of a global platform with over 4 million hosts.”

The company has previously addressed criticism via Project Lighthouse, an initiative in 2020 that sought to study and overcome discrimination on the platform.

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When the project was announced, Airbnb stated that “Discrimination is based on perception — and on Airbnb, people perceive race from things like first names and profile photos.”

When addressing potential limitations concerning the study, Luca mentioned that Asian American hosts did not raise their rates more than other hosts. Additionally, to remove the possibility that Asian American hosts took in fewer guests at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers purportedly analyzed data that involved hosts who allowed “instant booking.”

Luca pointed out that companies such as Airbnb can make a significant impact by not allowing their marketplaces to be affected by any kind of bias.

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Featured Image via Airbnb