On March 16, 2020, as COVID-19 was first spreading across the U.S., then-President Donald Trump issued a tweet about his support of U.S. industries, saying that he would protect them from the “Chinese Virus.” What followed, a new study has found, was a steep rise in tweets containing anti-Asian hashtags as anti-Asian sentiments rose across the country.
The study, published Friday in the American Journal of Public Health, examined nearly 700,000 tweets and more than 1.2 million hashtags posted over the weeks surrounding Trump’s initial tweet about the “Chinese Virus,” and its authors found Trump’s tweet was likely the cause of a rise in the use of the #chinesevirus hashtag. While the use of #covid19 only rose by 379 percent through the course of the study period, the use of #chinesevirus rose by 8351 percent.
“The week before Trump’s tweet the dominant term [on Twitter] was #covid-19,” Yulin Hswen, study co-author and epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Washington Post. “The week after his tweet, it was #chinesevirus.”
Those who used #chinesevirus were much more likely to attach other anti-Asian hashtags to the post than those who used #covid19, the study’s authors found. While only one in five of the #covid19 tweets examined had anti-Asian sentiments, half of the tweets with #chinesevirus were anti-Asian. Over the two-week course of the study, anti-Asian hashtags rose from 12,000 to almost half a million.
Though the study’s authors didn’t examine whether these tweets were tied to the rise in anti-Asian sentiments and hate incidents offline, they do note that other studies have found that the use of hashtags promoting hate speech has been associated with hate crimes.
“Hashtags allow information to travel beyond the initial social network and can form collations of speech,” the study authors wrote. “This has led researchers to examine how hate-speech hashtags are associated with hate crimes. In this research, the variable that best predicted real-world violence was the hashtag used in the tweet.”
The study’s authors also note that Trump’s position as an authority was likely partially responsible for the rise in anti-Asian posts online, since “racist attitudes may be reinforced by institutional support,” they write. Some of the tweets they cited in the study were particularly violent and virulent, with anti-Asian slurs and hashtags like #bombchina.
Previous studies on similar subjects have also found an increase in racism against Mexicans and Latino people during the 2016 election when Trump was spewing racist statement after racist statement to gain support for his presidency.
The study lends credence to what Asian Americans have been speaking up about for the duration of the pandemic: The scapegoating of China for the pandemic has led to the scapegoating of all Asian American people, regardless of their actual ethnic background, and is causing racism against Asian Americans to flare across the country.
This is also bolstered by another recent report by Stop AAPI Hate, which said that nearly 3,800 anti-Asian incidents have been reported in the past year. And last week, a white shooter killed eight people in a murder spree in Atlanta, Georgia, including six Asian women — an incident that has not been explicitly tied to the pandemic but that is inextricable from the rise in racist sentiments against Asian Americans.
Though the study examined sentiments on Twitter, politicians like Trump — largely Republicans — have uttered racist phrases like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” in public forums and even on the House floor. These sentiments from public officials have likely also fueled anti-Asian racism in the country.
Last week, during a House hearing on violence and racism against Asian Americans, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) used derogatory terms against Chinese people while ranting about how China caused the pandemic, while simultaneously glorifying lynching, calling it a form of justice. Rants like Roy’s are likely part of why, polls have found, the vast majority of Republicans are convinced that China is responsible for the virus and an “enemy” to the U.S.
Though these sentiments are about a country that many Asian Americans may not have any affiliation with at all, views on the country, Stop AAPI Hate found, are likely tied to anti-Asian racism. In an analysis of more than 1,800 incidents reported to the organization between March and May of last year, 27 percent of the assailants in the incidents mentioned “China” or “Chinese” during the incident. Several of them directly used the term “Chinese virus.”