How Anti-Asian Activity Online Set the Stage for Real-World Violence

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Negative Asian-American tropes have long existed online but began increasing last March as parts of the United States went into lockdown over the coronavirus. That month, politicians including Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, and Representative Kevin McCarthy, a Republican of California, used the terms “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese coronavirus” to refer to Covid-19 in their tweets.

Those terms then began trending online, according to a study from the University of California, Berkeley. On the day Mr. Gosar posted his tweet, usage of the term “Chinese virus” jumped 650 percent on Twitter; a day later there was an 800 percent increase in their usage in conservative news articles, the study found.

Mr. Trump also posted eight times on Twitter last March about the “Chinese virus,” causing vitriolic reactions. In the replies section of one of his posts, a Trump supporter responded, “U caused the virus,” directing the comment to an Asian Twitter user who had cited U.S. death statistics for Covid-19. The Trump fan added a slur about Asian people.

In a study this week from the University of California, San Francisco, researchers who examined 700,000 tweets before and after Mr. Trump’s March 2020 posts found that people who posted the hashtag #chinesevirus were more likely to use racist hashtags, including #bateatingchinese.

“There’s been a lot of discussion that ‘Chinese virus’ isn’t racist and that it can be used,” said Yulin Hswen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who conducted the research. But the term, she said, has turned into “a rallying cry to be able to gather and galvanize people who have these feelings, as well as normalize racist beliefs.”

Representatives for Mr. Trump, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Gosar did not respond to requests for comment.

Misinformation linking the coronavirus to anti-Asian beliefs also rose last year. Since last March, there have been nearly eight million mentions of anti-Asian speech online, much of it falsehoods, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights firm.

A Rise in Attacks Against Asian-Americans

    • Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. The suspect’s motives are under investigation, but Asian communities across the United States are on alert because of a surge in attacks against Asian-Americans over the past year.
    • A torrent of hate and violence against Asian-Americans around the U.S. began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Community leaders say the bigotry was spurred by the rhetoric of former President Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
    • In New York, a wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
    • In January, an 84-year-old man from Thailand was violently slammed to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death at a hospital two days later. The attack, captured on video, has become a rallying cry.

In one example, a Fox News article from April that went viral baselessly said that the coronavirus was created in a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan and intentionally released. The article was liked and shared more than one million times on Facebook and retweeted 78,800 times on Twitter, according to data from Zignal and CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing social media.