Anxiety, Fear, Misinformation & Xenophobia During the Coronavirus

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, social media has become rife with hatred, conspiracy theories and misinformation regarding the spread and origin of the virus. In times of great uncertainty and fear, hate again minorities often rises. In the current situation of Coronavirus, platforms have seen a sharp uptick in hate speech and in particular in xenophobic sentiments. It was recently stated that Twitter saw a 900% increase of COVID-19-related hate alone.

With the global rise of attacks against minority groups, Chinese citizens (whether living in China or here in Australia), and against anyone of Asian or Chinese appearance, the Online Hate Prevention Institute delves deeper into COVID-19 in this timely report. One thing we have found is that this new hate is at times linked to an older anti-Asian racism in Australia and the people who are promoting are often also those promoting other forms of hate such as Islamophobia. While racist means are a problem in the wider community, the core of hate at this time may well be coming from the same people who usually spend their online time promoting hate. Only now they are active online more often, and the hate is increasing as a result.

Anti-Asian Racism

On Twitter an Australian account makes an entirely unsupported claim that “Asians are spitting in our food supply all over the place”. The tweet also speaks about “appeasing anti-white owners”. We examine this user, a regular troll, in more detail in our briefing on Coronavirus and the Trolls.

On Facebook a claim promoted by 2GB that there were bus trips being organised from the city to regional shopping centres went viral with added racist and xenophobic comments. As this example shows the poster uses the content to support a rant about “Dirty Asian Scumbags”. The core of the story was later proven false as we discuss in on briefing on fake news.

“You and your viruses need to leave America. Go back to China” one user Tweets to Rep Judy Chu, a woman who is not only a natural born American citizen, but has served as the elected member for California’s 27th congressional district in the House of Representatives since 2009. Shu was the first Chinese American elected to the US Congress, a position she won after years of service in local government and the state legislature. She was born in Los Angeles to parents that migrated to the US from China.

Another twitter user writes “filthy asians cant be trusted”.

Claims of Biological Warfare

Much content has promoted conspiracy theories based around the idea that China deliberately created the virus to wreak havoc on global security and economies.

The first example on Twitter, and with 663 re-tweets claims Chinese people are deliberately spreading the virus in the US, calls it “bioterrorism” and argues for Chinese people to be charged as terrorists.

Another tweet promoted a petition to the White House to make China pay for what it describes as a “biological attack on the world”.

Another Tweet, directed to a Chinese American politician on the republican side, called it the CCP (Communist Party of China) Virus. It again promotes the idea it is a deliberate Chinese attack.

Another Tweet refers to Coronavirus as a “Manmade BioWeapon”.

Another Tweet uses the hashtag #ChineseBioterrorism. It shared a number of images listings facts but casting them as implausible to suggest there is a conspiracy. The first image refers to it as the “Chinese Virus” and questions whether it is a Bio-Weapon, then says it will provide the facts to answer this.

Another tweet urges readers to disbelieve an article about scientific research into the origins of the virus, instead asserting “this virus in manmade and was released for a reason”.

Confirmation Bias

Many have turned to movies and literature in an attempt to explain that the coronavirus was man made.

The Independent reported how the 2018 korean TV show, “My Secret Terrius” explicitly named the coronavirus (which is an umbrella term for a range of flu related viruses). According to the Independent, “unlike real life…the virus in the show – which is seen being compared to SARS – was ‘manipulated’ in an attempt to make it more contagious, although it remarked that the coronavirus attacks the lungs directly within just five minutes of being exposed.” Despite this, many have been using the TV show to incorrectly prove the virus is manmade.

A piece of literature has also been used to perpetuate the myth that the virus was created as a means of biological warfare.

As Reuters reported, the 1981 novel, The Eyes of Darkness, written by Dean Koontz, described a disease similar to COVID-19: “They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400’ because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside of the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research center.” Despite the fact that this writing is sensationalist and a piece of fiction, it is being used to spread misinformation.

This briefing has been prepared by Osiris Parikh, an OHPI Analyst.

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This article is part of our special focus on Coronavirus. For the month of April, the Online Hate Prevention Institute is running a campaign Tackling Online Islamophobia. We are also currently running a fundraiser to expand our May 2020 campaign to stop online Misogyny. The full plan for our campaigns in 2020 can be seen here.