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Words matter. That is the conclusion made by two experts featured in the American Journal of Public Health’s May podcast "#ChineseVirus vs #COVID-19 racism and xenophobia on social media." Hosted by AJPH Editor-in-Chief Alfredo Morabia, MD, PhD, the conversation focuses on the connection between last year’s use of Twitter hashtag “Chinese virus” and the dramatic rise in anti-Asian racism, xenophobia and hate crimes.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino found that anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in America's largest cities jumped nearly 150% in 2020.
Gilbert C. Gee, PhD, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, believes this statistic is not isolated from the implications of a study he co-authored on the use of anti-Asian language on Twitter following former President Trump’s now infamous “Chinese virus” tweet.
“I really believe that the discourse that has become more negative has used Asians, in particular Chinese, as scapegoats for the COVID pandemic,” said Gee. “I can’t help but believe that this actually has played an important role in the rise of anti-Asian violence.”
The study, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health, analyzed nearly 700,000 tweets containing nearly 1.3 million hashtags, the week before and after former President Trump’s March 2020 tweet.
Researchers specifically focused on hashtags rather than tweets themselves because hashtags have been shown to act as predictor for the formation of hate groups and incitement of hate crimes.
The study found that users who adopted the hashtag “Chinese virus” were far more likely to include other racist hashtags, in contrast to those who used the hashtag “Covid19,” the World Health Organization’s (WHO) official name for the disease, and the term it recommends to prevent racial stigmatization.
“Hate is like water trickling, it’s a little bit at a time,” said guest Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, PhD, MPH, program director, Health Communications and Informatics Research Branch, National Cancer Institute Behavioral Research Program. “So if you’re exposed to a little bit of it, a little more of it and you’re distressed, you’re stressed out, and you don’t know who to blame for this giant mess we are in, it’s easy to see why scapegoating can happen.”
While the guests tied these occurrences to other pandemics, such as AIDS and the Spanish Flu, the conversation additionally focused on the broader topics of structural and systemic racism, and how it can be dismantled from representative leadership to how we look at current education in our nation’s schools.
“I suspect at some point all the anti-Asian hate that’s occurring right now will start to subside,” said Gee. “When the next pandemic hits, who’s the next group to be encountering all this? History will repeat itself unless we change, fundamentally, how we do things.”
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