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After Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis, anti-Asian tweets and conspiracies rose 85%: report

The head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said the research shows that anyone who fails to see the link between harmful rhetoric and bigotry is "lying to themselves."
Image: President Donald Trump boards Marine One to depart for travel to Iowa from the South Lawn of the White House
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the news media before departing the White House on campaign travel to Des Moines, Iowa from the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 14, 2020.Leah Millis / Reuters

Anti-Asian bigotry and conspiracy theories spiked on Twitter immediately following President Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis this month, new findings reveal.

The report, released last week by the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group, examined Twitter activity surrounding Trump's diagnosis on Oct. 2. Researchers found an 85 percent increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and conspiracy theories on the platform in the 12 hours following the announcement, many blaming China.

The surge in bigoted tweets also occurred shortly after Trump said the pandemic is "China's fault" during the first presidential debate and further referred to the virus as the "China plague."

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the research shows that anyone who fails to see the link between the harmful rhetoric and subsequent bigotry is "lying to themselves."

"These people — who include the president and congressional Republicans — want to stoke xenophobia and anger but also want to deny the dangerous impact their own words are having," Chu said. "You can't have it both ways, and this report exposes the danger of pushing racially based conspiracy theories like this."

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The report, "At the Extremes: The 2020 Election and American Extremism," examined more than 2.7 million tweets that were posted from the four hours before Trump announced his diagnosis, as well as that of Melania Trump, to the afternoon the following day.

Researchers looked at tweets with mentions of the accounts @realdonaldtrump, @potus and @flotus, as well as @senatorloeffler, the account of Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who had pushed people to "hold China accountable" and "remember: China gave this virus to our President." The researchers also looked at tweets with at least one of the keywords "trump," "melania," "first lady," "china virus," "plague," "kung flu" and "Wuhan."

Researchers found not only that was there a surge in anti-Asian tweets in the hours after Trump's diagnosis was announced, but also that anti-Asian sentiment on the platform remained elevated for days afterward. The report revealed that the rate of discussions about various conspiracy theories — including one that alleges that the virus was engineered by humans and another that claims that Covid-19 is "patented," a bioweapon created by the Chinese government — increased by 41 percent. The research also shows that some of the conversations veered into anti-Semitism or had anti-Semitic overtones.

Asian Americans have been weathering increased hostility since the beginning of the pandemic. The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate collected reports of 2,583 hate incidents directed at Asian Americans from March 19 to Aug. 5, during the pandemic. Almost 800 of the reports said anti-Chinese rhetoric was used. What's more, previous research suggests that the use of terms like "China virus" and "kung flu," particularly by conservative outlets, has already seeped into U.S. perceptions of Asian Americans.

While anti-Asian bias had been in steady decline for over a decade, the trend reversed in days after a significant uptick in discriminatory coronavirus speech, according to a study published in September. On March 9 alone, there was an 800 percent increase in such rhetoric among conservative media outlets. The language led to an increased subconscious belief that Asian Americans are "perpetual foreigners," researchers said.

"Progress against bias is generally stable," Eli Michaels, a researcher on that study, has said previously. "But this particular rhetoric, which associates a racial group with a global pandemic, has particularly pernicious effects."

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., the main sponsor of a House resolution that called on public officials to denounce any anti-Asian sentiment, said she herself had been targeted with a slew of racist voicemails after the legislation was passed in September. In one message, a caller said she looked "like a Chinese virus, you fat slob." And she said another claimed that the harmful rhetoric is "not racist, it's the truth. Filthy people."

"The report shows no signs of this bigotry and xenophobia ending any time soon," Meng said. She said the racist and obscenity-laced voicemails were filled anti-Asian remarks that Trump has made about the coronavirus, such as "Chinese virus" and "kung flu" — "the very things I and the House condemned in passing my measure."

Chu said that as the election approaches, she is "absolutely afraid of more attacks" against Asian Americans. The report ultimately "draws a clear line from the kinds of conspiracy theories Trump spreads to help his own re-election directly to the spike in anti-Asian hate that we are seeing," she said.

"Covid-19 is continuing to ravage this country, claiming hundreds of lives a day, but the president still does not have a plan to address it," Chu said. "While he downplays the virus, he still blames China for every death and continues to stoke xenophobia that puts innocent Asian Americans at risk of violence. The president isn't only indifferent to that. He's accelerating it."