SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – A tweet by former President Donald Trump in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has been attributed to a precipitous rise in anti-Asian hashtags on the social media platform, according to a new UCSF study.
Researchers examined nearly 700,000 tweets containing nearly 1.3 million hashtags in the days before and after Trump characterized the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” on Twitter.
“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!” the president said on March 16, 2020.
Trump has since been permanently banned from Twitter after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a deadly siege on January 6.
The researchers found that those who adopted the hashtag #chinesevirus were far more likely to pair it with other overtly racist hashtags compared to those who tweeted with the hashtag #covid19, the official name of the disease.
Hashtags were analyzed instead of the tweets themselves because they have been shown as a predictor of the formation of hate groups and the occurrence of hate crimes, researchers explained.
“These results may be a proxy of growth in anti-Asian sentiment that was not as prevalent as before,” said UCSF epidemiology and biostatics assistant professor Yulin Hswen. “Using racial terms associated with a disease can result in the perpetuation of further stigmatization of racial groups.”
In an interview with KPIX 5, Hswen said, “Many had believed it was not a derogatory term, however, our evidence showed that is not the case and that more negative terms related to anti-Asian sentiment were associated with Chinese virus.”
Hswen said words matter, particularly when they come from powerful people. “In 2015 the World Health Organization released a statement saying that disease names can provide backlash on particular regions or ethnic communities and they should not be used,” she said.
The hashtags on social media platforms have largely been unregulated by companies like Twitter and Facebook.
“Unless it’s really obvious, and I think what’s been particularly frustrating to the Asian-American community, is that a lot of the rhetoric is a bit more subtle. There isn’t really that explosive n-word, there isn’t a Nazi symbol that necessarily is an immediate red flag,” said Roger Cheng, executive editor at CNET News, told KPIX 5.
The UCSF study comes amid an ongoing rise in anti-Asian attacks in the Bay Area and across the country, including the killings of six Asian women at spas in the Atlanta area earlier this week.
In San Francisco and Oakland, elderly Asians have been targeted in particular, and some of the attacks have been deadly. In late January, 94-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee was killed outside his home in San Francisco. Last week, 75-year-old Pak Ho died following an assault and robbery during a morning walk in Oakland.
Most recently, 59-year-old Danny Yu Chang was severely beaten on San Francisco’s Market Street and suffered severe injuries. On Wednesday, 76-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie was also attacked on Market Street and fought back against her attacker.
Even after leaving office and losing his Twitter account, the former president has continued to characterize the virus as Chinese. In a statement earlier this month, Trump referred to the COVID-19 vaccine as the “China Virus Vaccine”.
The UCSF study has been published in the American Journal of Public Health.