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Donald Trump's 2020 tweet calling coronavirus 'Chinese Virus' saw spike in anti-Asian Twitter hashtags: Study

Trump's controversial tweet has come under the scanner following the recent shootings at Atlanta parlors that killed a number of women of Asian descent
UPDATED MAR 19, 2021
Former president Donald Trump held China responsible for the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic a number of times by calling the virus 'Chinese' (Getty Images)
Former president Donald Trump held China responsible for the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic a number of times by calling the virus 'Chinese' (Getty Images)

Anti-Asian hatred has come under the scanner following the shooting incidents at three massage parlors in Atlanta earlier this week that killed eight -- many of whom being women of Asian descent -- and a new study published on Thursday, March 18, in the American Journal of Public Health, has found a connection between the spike in cases of anti-Asian hatred and former president Donald Trump. 

It was exactly a year ago, on March 16, 2020, that Trump called the coronavirus as “Chinese virus” after the pandemic started wreaking havoc in the country in terms of public health and economy and since then, anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter saw a rise. US researchers went through almost 700,000 tweets containing nearly 1.3 million hashtags, the week before and after the Republican posted his tweet saying: “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!” They found users who used the hashtag #chinesevirus were likely to pair it with those that were overtly racist, like #beatingchinese, #yellowmanfever, #makethecommiechinesepay, #disgustingchinese #commieflu and #chopstickchins. 


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Trump called the deadly virus Chinese on several occasions despite facing criticism after it originated in China’s Wuhan in late 2019. The US has been crippled by the pandemic as it saw the most number of people getting affected (nearly 30 million) and killed (more than 530,000) and jeopardized Trump’s plan to win the White House for the second time last year. Trump denied charges that his term “Chinese Virus” was racist even though the number of coronavirus-related tweets with anti-Asuan hashtags rose alarmingly in the days following his tweet. Trump was banned by Twitter and other major social media platforms following the violence at the Capitol Hill on January 6 as he was accused of inciting the insurrection. 

A man wears a protective mask in Wuhan, China, on February 10, 2020, when the city was shut down following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. (Getty Images)

Dr Yulin Hswen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UC, San Francisco, and the study's lead author, said: “Anti-Asian sentiment depicted in the tweets containing the term 'Chinese Virus' likely perpetuated racist attitudes and parallels the anti-Asian hate crimes that have occurred since.” She said the study results “confirm that nationality, race, or ethnicity should not be attached to disease nomenclature, as these names can carry pejorative connotations that can stigmatize these communities”.

Experts warn against verbal violence on social media

Dr John Brownstein, an ABC News Medical Unit contributor and author of the study, warned such online conversations could spark violent reactions. “We often see that online conversations that contain messages of hate don't stay online. Oftentimes, the conversations that take place on social media results in real world consequences,” he said.

Dr Daniel Rogers, an expert on misinformation at New York University, said hateful content on social media can see more of the same being served up to the users, thanks to the platforms’ algorithms. “As platform algorithms pick up on engagement around this toxic content, they recommend increasingly more extreme content to users until their feeds are dominated by nothing but the most extreme stuff, goading those users with a propensity toward violence to potentially committing hate crimes," he was quoted as saying by ABC News. 

International health officials did not link the virus to its geography of origin, unlike Trump, to avoid the blame game. Experts and policy makers cautioned against promoting racism on social media saying it could see a spike in hate crimes. In a bulletin published in February 2020, the World Health Organization wrote: “Don't attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a ‘Wuhan Virus’, ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Asian Virus’.” The world body gave the disease the official name of Covid-19 and those who adopted #covid19 hashtag were much less likely to include racist hashtags in their tweets. 

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom (Getty Images)

Statistics have shown that verbal and violent attacks on people of Asian descent have gone up since Trump’s original tweet. The Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center, a website which is maintained by Asian Pacific Policy Planning Council, said between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021, it had received reports of 3,795 such cases. Verbal harassment and avoiding Asian Americans mostly constituted the cases, at 68.1 and 20.5 percent, respectively. The Washington Post reported in April 2020, anti-Asian hate crime had been on the decline over the past two decades till the pandemic’s outbreak. 

The current Joe Biden administration has also slammed the previous one with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki saying at a press briefing on Wednesday, March 17, that damaging rhetoric used by the previous administration caused “inaccurate, unfair” perceptions putting Asian Americans at risk. Trump referred to Covid-19 as “Chinese Virus” on Fox News even on the night the Asian women were killed in Atlanta. 

On the night several Asian women were shot dead in Atlanta, he referred to Covid-19 as the "China Virus" on Fox News.