There’s been an uptick of rhetoric blaming someone for the coronavirus outbreak. Specifically, China and the Chinese people.
Instead of using neutral and scientific language like “coronavirus” and “Covid-19,” people are posting online about the “Chinese virus,” “Chinese coronavirus,” “Wuhan virus,” or the “Kung Flu.” Much of this ramping-up can be linked to public statements and social media posts by Republican politicians, including US president Donald Trump.
And the dog-whistle language is just part of the problem, with blatantly anti-Asian racism and China-centered conspiracy theories spreading across the internet.
An atmosphere of hate and stigmatization is already having harmful consequences out in the real world. Incidents of racial hatred and violence toward Asians have been reported in several countries since the virus began spreading. (In the US, you can report such incidents on this website.)
The anti-Chinese discourse, whether veiled or apparent, has been online from the very beginning of the outbreak, but there’s been a clear increase starting in the second week of March, despite a direct plea on March 2 from the World Health Organization:
While media organizations largely refrain from using geographic designations, many on the right have doubled down.
An analysis from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab (DFRLab) shows the rise of such language on Twitter and news articles.
DFRLab’s analysis suggests that politicians are some of the most effective trolls out there.
On March 8, Republican representative Paul Gosar tweeted about the “Wuhan virus,” and on March 9, Republican house leader Kevin McCarthy mentioned the “Chinese Coronavirus” in a tweet. A day later, Donald Trump was retweeting a post about the “China Virus.”
“Retweets of the terms ‘Wuhan virus,’ ‘Wuhan coronavirus,’ ‘China virus,’ and ‘Chinese coronavirus’ were relatively non-existent prior to Rep. Paul Gosar’s March 8 tweet. Within an hour of the congressman’s tweet at 9:08pm, the phrases had been retweeted 24,049 times,” Max Rizzuto, author of the DFRLab analysis, wrote.
Republican politicians echoed the phrasing and the sentiment online, and in live appearances:
“China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that,” Republican senator John Cornyn said in a conversation with reporters. “These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu, and now the coronavirus.”
“The thing that we can prove pretty consistently is that they are the main amplifiers,” Graham Brookie, the director of DFRLab, told Quartz. Even if they are responding to and echoing their constituents, it is the politicians who have the platform. “That is what drives stigmatization.”
The politicians’ use of the dog-whistle terms has drawn criticism from the press and the public, but this has created a backlash to the backlash. The lawmakers and Trump are digging in their heels, as are their defenders on social platforms and in the right-wing media.
Here’s a tweet from the conservative publication The Federalist on March 23:
(The blame-game works both ways: Chinese officials have given credence to a conspiracy theory that the US Army started the outbreak.)
A similar rising trajectory in mid-March for terms like “China virus,” “Chinese virus,” or “Wuhan virus” is apparent on Facebook, according to a Quartz analysis of data from CrowdTangle, a social-media monitoring tool owned by Facebook. On Facebook, dog-whistle or outright racist language appears on pages, in groups, but also in ads. On Instagram, tens of thousands of posts are hashtagged with those terms.
The anti-Chinese narrative takes different forms. At times, it simply blames the Chinese government for the crisis (with the frequent addition of “Communist” to score political points among conservatives). It’s also woven into conspiracy theories, the most prominent one falsely suggesting that 5G networks caused the outbreak in China. The following is an ad from a conservative news website that has been linked to several pro-Trump SuperPACs:
Coronavirus and the Chinese connection are being coopted on social media into other anti-establishment and right-wing narratives. In one anti-vaccination Facebook group, a poster was spreading the 5G conspiracy theory while also calling the virus the “Kung Flu.”
Anti-globalists are able to easily weave toxic language into their rhetoric as well. In a Facebook group specifically dedicated to the pandemic, someone wrote: “WHO is owned by the Chinese, don’t believe them.” Big League Politics is a pro-Trump website founded by former Breitbart staffers, and ran this ad on Facebook:
On 4chan, a message board where anything goes, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian hate speech and conspiracy theories abound, and are, as usual, more vitriolic than on other channels. “They are relishing the chaos, a lot of them fetishize violence,” Rizzuto told Quartz.
In far-right communities online, coronavirus becomes another topic to engage a group’s worldview. “It’s a news cycle topic that everyone is focused on and these groups will catalyze to drive more of their own conversations on this topic within [their own] overarching framework,” Brookie said.
On Gab, a social network popular among the far right, users are sharing links to articles bashing political correctness or tracing the number of Asian immigrants recently apprehended at the US border. Comment threads contain such statements as “more proof that diversity kills,” or racist commentary on Asian food and hygiene. Similar language appears on Telegram.
On TikTok teenagers joke about running away from Chinese exchange students or their Asian-American peers, while (mostly) older men defend their decision to call it the “Chinese virus.”
Search for coronavirus-related terms on the large platforms and your results will include links to credible news sources, or even content directly from those sources (such as TikTok videos made by the WHO). But misinformation and harmful content continues to spread as people share it on their feeds and with their friends.
Sam Sharpe and Jake Wasserman contributed to this story. They are part of an online investigations class at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism collaborating with Quartz.