Trump, GOP ‘dog whistle’ over coronavirus inflames anti-Chinese rhetoric online: analysis

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Social media mentions promoting anti-Chinese rhetoric soared online after President Trump and GOP lawmakers referred to the coronavirus as a “foreign” and Chinese disease, according to a new analysis by a Washington think tank.

Despite calls by the World Health Organization (WHO) last month to refer to the coronavirus as COVID-19 to avoid stigmatizing China, Trump and other high-level Republicans have labeled the virus as “Chinese” or from the city of Wuhan in China, where the disease was first detected.

“Stigmatization, especially online, about COVID-19 is something that makes an effective public health response much harder,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research (DFR) Lab, which conducted the analysis published Tuesday.

Global health officials have warned that the war of words online amounts to an “infodemic” and can be as dangerous as the spread of the disease itself.

The WHO defines an infodemic as “an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

“Actors that flood the information space with anything outside of the latest science-based and publicly accountable information is making the infodemic worse, and making our public health response to COVID-19 more difficult,” Brookie said.

The name COVID-19 was used by the World Health Organization on Feb. 11 in an effort to standardize references to the disease and avoid stigmatization of people from a particular place.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the time. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”

The DFR analysis found that dog whistle terms referring to coronavirus as related to China or Wuhan were reduced to just 9 percent after the WHO announced the name of COVID-19.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of “Chinese coronavirus” on CNBC and Fox News on March 7 led to an 800 percent increase in the phrase on social media and news articles, DFR found.

That was followed on March 8 and 9 with tweets by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) using similar terms.

“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,” DFR wrote. “Within an hour of the congressman’s tweet at 9:08pm, the phrases had been retweeted 24,049 times.”

Included in those tweets was a back-and-forth debate over Gosar’s initial tweet that fed the visibility and prevalence of the term, which in turn grew the audience online.

“Predominantly Democratic politicians and progressive influencers on Twitter repudiated Rep. Gosar’s word choice and decried the politician for the implications of the terminology,” DFR said. “But even well-intentioned tweets highlighting Rep. Gosar’s phrasing became a form of amplification in itself, feeding the term more oxygen by distributing it to a broader public.”

Gosar defended his choice of words.

“The Wuhan virus originated in Wuhan, China and saying so acknowledges the fact that the Communist regime facilitated its spread around the globe,” he wrote in an email to The Hill on Wednesday. “I encourage people to focus their frustration toward the Communist China regime that worsened this global pandemic, not Asian Americans who are experiencing the very same health crisis as everyone else.”

McCarthy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did the State Department.

On March 11, Trump’s use of “foreign virus” in remarks from the Oval Office caused an immediate spike in social media mentions and use of the term “surged into the tens of millions,” DFR said.

“The proliferation of these dog-whistle terms shows no signs of abating, as certain conservative politicians and influencers dig in their heels about their usage,” DFR wrote, “all despite WHO’s warning that such language is contributing to an infodemic in which the public is struggling to vet the reliability of COVID-19 information, while further stigmatizing Chinese people and other populations in the process.”

On Tuesday, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum issued a statement with nine other organizations, including the NAACP, calling for more action to be done to combat racism and xenophobia.

“In recent weeks, Asian Americans have been subjected to violent attacks, discrimination against their businesses and xenophobic portrayal by the media and our elected leaders,” the statement read.

“We call on policymakers, the media and the public to take affirmative steps to halt and condemn xenophobia and to ensure that the health and safety of all Americans is protected,” the groups wrote.

Trump said at a White House press conference Wednesday that he would continue to refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” to reinforce that it originated in China, in response to a question from reporters.

“It’s not racist at all. It comes from China,” he said. “I want to be accurate.”

Trump said his use of the term is meant to push back against efforts by Beijing to promote conspiracy theories that the virus was brought to China by the U.S. military.

“China tried to say at one point, maybe they stopped now, that it was caused by American soldiers. That can’t happen, it’s not going to happen, not as long as I’m president. It comes from China,” he added.

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Kevin McCarthy Mike Pompeo Paul Gosar
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