Anti-Asian hashtags soared after Donald Trump first tied COVID-19 to China on Twitter, study shows

The week after then-President Donald Trump first used the hashtag #chinesevirus on Twitter, the number of people using the hashtag increased more than tenfold, and they were much more likely to include anti-Asian hashtags than those who used #covid19 in their tweets.

Anti-Asian bias and attacks have grown exponentially over the past year in conjunction with anti-Chinese rhetoric. This week's deadly shooting in Atlanta, in which six of the eight people killed were of Asian descent, has contributed to fears throughout the Asian-American community.

Trump's use of the phrase in speeches and on Twitter, which critics called racist, preceded a cascade of its use by others online. The mean number of daily users in the #covid19 group rose by 379% after Trump's tweet, compared with an increase of #chinesevirus by 8,351%.

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"There were a lot of arguments that 'Chinese virus' was a scientific term and was no different than COVID-19. But in fact, you see a large difference,” said Yulin Hswen, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

She was one of a group of researchers who tracked the number of anti-Asian hashtags that were used together with the neutral hashtag #covid19 compared with #chinesevirus. They found evidence of an association between the latter phrase and anti-Asian language.

The associations show the majority of people associated #chinesevirus with negative statements and meant it to have a stigmatizing effect, Hswen said.

Overall, half of tweets that used #chinesevirus included anti-Asian hashtags while only 20% of those that used #covid19 did, according to research published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

Mallory Rahman and her daughter Zara place flowers near a makeshift memorial outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta,  March 17, 2021.

The hashtags used in conjunction with #chinesevirus included expletives aimed at China, Chinese people and Asians in general as well as hashtags that advocated killing Chinese people, bombing Chinese cities as well as racist attacks on all things Asian. 

The findings come from an analysis of 1% of Twitter's real-time streaming data the week before and the week after Trump first used the hashtag on March 16, 2020. 

Trump's tweet read "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!"

Twitter removed the tweet, and Trump's entire account, on Jan. 8, citing concerns that he would incite further violence after his supporters rioted at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

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Anti-Asian rhetoric and attacks had already been growing during the Trump administration in part because of worsening U.S.-China relations and a campaign policy of China-bashing, said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University. 

That intensified when Trump began referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus. "We immediately saw a surge mid-March of 2020 of hate incidents directed against Asian-Americans," he said.

Jeung helped launch Stop AAPI Hate in 2020 to track anti-Asian discrimination, harassment and attacks. It has received reports of almost 3,800 incidents through the end of February.

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Trump's use of the phrase on social media and in speeches made it seem normal and acceptable as opposed to using the official name, COVID-19. "By using the term 'Chinese virus,' he made a biological virus Chinese. He racialized it," Jeung said. 

The World Health Organization first warned that naming diseases after specific areas or ethnic groups can spark backlashes in 2015, something health care workers see on the ground.

"We are really starting to realize how labeling diseases based on nationality or ethnicity is having severe repercussions in terms of how people feel towards that nation or populations and also resulting in real-world behavior such as hate crimes," Hwsen said. 

COVID-19 is an abbreviation of the disease's full name, which is coronavirus disease 2019, where “CO” stands for “corona,” “VI” for “virus,” and “D” for disease. This was the name recommended by WHO on Feb. 11, 2020 for the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The WHO, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued guidelines for this usage, warning against linking the disease to a specific place or area.

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Trump consistently used more inflammatory phrases to describe the disease that emerged in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, including during an interview on Fox News on Tuesday. That helped contribute to a toxic atmosphere around Asians and Asian-Americans, said John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and one of the paper's co-authors.

"It normalized certain types of conversation online that may have existed more in the fringes and it provided a safe space for people to voice these biased views that ultimately have significant impacts," he said. 

There is a randomness to the emergence of infectious diseases caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans and they can't necessarily be linked to the people who live in the areas where it happens, Brownstein said.

Similar scapegoating has been seen when other diseases took on names with geographic associations, such as Spanish flu, West Nile virus, Zika virus and Ebola. 

"The paper affirms what those of us in public health have been concerned about," he said. "Labeling a country as being associated with a virus can create unnecessary stigmatization and lead to bias."