Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’ tweet sparked uptick in anti-Asian hashtags, researchers allege

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — On March 16th, 2020, then-President Donald Trump tweeted a statement including the phrase “Chinese virus.” According to researchers from the University of California-San Francisco, instances of coronavirus-related tweets containing an anti-Asian hashtag increased dramatically in the following days.

Study authors examined close to 700,000 tweets containing almost 1.3 million hashtags during their research. Social media users sent those tweets out either the week before or immediately after Trump’s tweet.

Researchers say Twitter users who used the hashtag “#chinesevirus” were significantly more likely to also use other inflammatory or racist hashtags including “#bateatingchinese,” “#makethecommiechinesepay,” “#disgustingchinese,” and “#commieflu.”

Conversely, Twitter profiles using the hashtag #covid19 were much less likely to use anti-Asian language or hashtags.

“These results may be a proxy of growth in anti-Asian sentiment that was not as prevalent as before,” says Yulin Hswen, ScD, MPH, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF and a member of the Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute, in a university release. “Using racial terms associated with a disease can result in the perpetuation of further stigmatization of racial groups.”

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Study authors explain they chose to focus on hashtags over actual tweet content because hashtags often act as “predictors” of emerging racist trends, hate groups, and hate crimes committed in the real world.

Researchers considered a hashtag anti-Asian if it conveyed hostility toward Asian people, culture, or regions. They may also attempt to evoke fear, mistrust, or hatred toward Asians, express support for Asian immigration restrictions, use derogatory language about Asians, or support punishing Asian countries or individuals.

Among the close to 500,000 analyzed hashtags accompanying the hashtag #covid19, about 20 percent included a form of anti-Asian sentiment. Hashtags accompanying #chinesevirus, on the other hand, allegedly contained racist sentiments in 50 percent of cases (among 775,000 hashtags).

Following the president’s March 16th tweet, study authors find the number of anti-Asian hashtags associated with #chinesevirus grew noticeably.

In conclusion, researchers recommend that the public use neutral language when referring to any disease or public health threat. They add that turning an entire nation or ethnic group into a nefarious enemy serves no purpose except to incite and inflame tensions at home and abroad.

“Chinese virus, China virus, Wuhan virus, or any derivative of these terms is not something we should be using,” Hswen concludes. “We should not be attaching location or ethnicity to diseases.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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John Anderer

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