While efforts to wrangle the COVID-19 outbreak continue worldwide, the World Health Organization is contending with another type of viral spread in the form of conservative American politicians stigmatizing Chinese people for political gain. Despite the fact that pandemics can start anywhere and — by definition — spread beyond geopolitical boundaries, these politicians have stood by their use of terms like “Wuhan virus” and “foreign virus,” ignoring examples of Asians being verbally and physically assaulted due to being linked with the new coronavirus.
In a Twitter thread on February 11, 2020, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the 2019 novel strain of the coronavirus had an official name: COVID-19. The naming decision came at a time when terms such as “Chinese coronavirus,” “Wuhan Coronavirus,” “China Virus,” and “Wuhan Virus” were being used interchangeably with several other ambiguous terms. Tedros and WHO have made it clear that the name choice was designed to avoid stigmatizing the population living near COVID-19’s point of origin, part of their broader effort to fight the spread of incorrect or misleading information about the outbreak, which WHO has referred to as an infodemic. “The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization,” WHO’s official Twitter account wrote on March 2 in a tweet that has received over 1,000 retweets and more than 2,000 likes.
Despite WHO’s efforts, leading U.S. conservative politicians and influencers have continued embracing such terminology as “dog whistles” — coded language that can be used to denigrate a group while publicly denying you are doing it — that implicitly blame Chinese people for the viral outbreak. While such language has circulated online since the early days of the outbreak, it was not until well after WHO’s efforts to push back against stigmatizing terms that needlessly divisive COVID-19 rhetoric erupted more broadly within online conservative political discourse. Some conservatives have even embraced using these terms as a badge of honor, such as Jack Posobiec temporarily changing his Twitter name to “Wuhan Jack.”
The widespread online debate about COVID-19 and dog-whistle rhetoric was sparked on March 8 following a tweet from U.S. Representative Paul Gosar, in which the Republican lawmaker from Arizona referred to COVID-19 as “Wuhan virus.” According to Trendinalia, a tool used to monitor trending topics on Twitter, the phrase “Wuhan virus” began trending that same day and into the next. Predominantly Democratic politicians and progressive influencers on Twitter repudiated Rep. Gosar’s word choice and decried the politician for the implications of the terminology. 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.
On March 9, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy employed the term “Chinese Coronavirus” in a tweet, drawing further attention to the ongoing debate about stigmatization and dog-whistle messaging. By the morning of March 10, the lexical controversy made its way to President Donald Trump, who retweeted a tweet from the founder of Turning Point USA referring to the coronavirus as “China Virus.”
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. Within an hour of the congressman’s tweet at 9:08pm, the phrases had been retweeted 24,049 times.
Outrage and debate about the politics of anti-Chinese dog whistles persisted. In a March 10 tweet, GOP House Leader Kevin McCarthy criticized Democrats who he alleged were trying to “score political points by calling Republicans racist” for using terms like “Chinese coronavirus.”
In his rebuttal, McCarthy cited a number of media headlines using the phrase “Chinese coronavirus,” but all of them predated the WHO campaign launched on February 11 to give the disease a name that would not stigmatize people. All of the examples, except for one regarding a U.S. House of Representatives hearing, were published in mid-January during the early weeks of the outbreak, prior to WHO’s designation of the new coronavirus as COVID-19.
To get a better sense of the usage of anti-Chinese COVID-19 terms on Twitter, the DFRLab conducted a series of queries using the media monitoring tool BuzzSumo, exploring the various terms used in reference to COVID-19 as the story and outbreak developed. The DFRLab plotted the results, revealing an interesting history of the evolution of language about the emerging pandemic and how conservative politicians and influencers have manipulated it, despite WHO’s efforts to prevent a further infodemic.
The above chart illustrates the evolution of the lexicon used by media outlets in reference to the 2019 novel coronavirus disease that eventually became known as COVID-19. As the outbreak first entered the news cycle in mid-January, phrases such as “China virus,” “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese coronavirus,” and “Wuhan coronavirus” saw widespread use for lack of better terminology. On February 11, the World Health Organization debuted official naming conventions for the virus, at which point “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” began to represent a greater percentage of reporting.
During the first week of March, dog-whistle terms were reduced to just nine percent, while more scientifically accurate language made up the remaining 91 percent. However, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of the term “Chinese coronavirus” on CNBC and Fox and Friends on March 7 resulted in an 800 percent increase in the phrase. By March 10, dog-whistle terms had reclaimed 20 percent of reporting on the 2019 novel coronavirus. Additionally, the term “COVID-19” ascended from a mere one percent of total engagements to a substantial 33 percent between March 10 to March 14.
Meanwhile, inflammatory coronavirus rhetoric took another turn on the night of March 11, when President Trump delivered remarks from the Oval Office in which he referred to COVID-19 as a “foreign virus.” His use of the term led to an immediate spike on social media. As can be seen in this chart documenting Twitter impressions of the term in the days leading up to Trump’s remarks, it had been virtually non-existent beforehand; afterwards it surged into the tens of millions.
Additionally, a subsequent spike in online articles referencing Trump’s use of the phrase “foreign virus” can clearly be seen in the hours and days following his remarks using the media monitoring tool BuzzSumo. While the phrase appeared in articles briefly prior WHO’s February 11 designation of the new coronavirus disease as COVID-19, it declined for a month until it was embraced by the U.S. president on March 11.
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, 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.