New research suggests that the use of terms like “Wuhan flu” and “Chinese virus” by conservative media outlets and Republican figures had a measurable impact on unconscious bias against Asian Americans. The study, published in Health Education & Behavior, found that implicit bias increased after the use of such phrases went viral.
“While we are earning our doctorates in different disciplines, we have a shared interest in how current events shape racial attitudes, and how collective racial bias in society can harm marginalized groups,” explained study authors Eli Michaels and Sean Darling-Hammond, who are both PhD students at the University of California, Berkeley.
“When elected officials started using stigmatizing language to describe the coronavirus, multiple media watchdogs and civil rights groups warned that anti-Asian bias might increase, which could negatively impact the health and safety of Asian Americans. We both shared this concern and decided to investigate this question empirically: what was the effect of stigmatizing rhetoric on collective racial biases toward Asian Americans in the United States during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic?”
“As researchers, it’s our role to unearth the causes of racial biases in society, and to provide evidence that can be used for social change. This study was an effort to do just that,” Michaels and Darling-Hammond said.
The researchers analyzed data from 339,063 non-Asian individuals collected by Harvard’s Project Implicit website from January 1, 2007, to March 31, 2020. The participants completed a computerized Implicit Association Test, a test of unconscious attitudes, in which they pressed a specific computer key to categorize pairs of words related to social groups and attributes.
For their study, Michaels, Darling-Hammond, and their colleagues specifically analyzed data from the “Asian IAT,” which assessed perceptions of the “Americanness” of Asian Americans compared to European Americans.
The researchers found that the unconscious pairing of Asian Americans with foreign concepts declined steadily from 2007 through early 2020. But this trend reversed on March 8.
“To put these results in perspective, we estimate that in the approximately 3-week period from March 8 to March 31, not only did aggregate-levels of Implicit Americanness Bias among non-Asians grow after 13 years of fairly steady decline, it also grew enough to offset more than 3 years of prior declines,” the researchers wrote in their study.
The increase in anti-Asian bias, which was more prominent among conservative participants, coincided with more negative rhetoric among Republican officials. On March 7, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the term “Chinese virus” on Fox and Friends. U.S. Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, referred to COVID-19 as “Wuhan virus” the following day.
According to one analysis, “on March 8 there was a 650% increase in Twitter retweets using the term ‘Chinese virus’ and related terms. On March 9, there was an 800% increase in the use of these terms in news media articles,” the researchers said.
“Our study provides real-world evidence that words do matter, that rhetoric is not harmless, and that media representations can have measurable consequences for our collective biases,” Michaels and Darling-Hammond told PsyPost.
“Recent events echo that rhetoric can poison our hearts and lead to us to act out of hatred and fear. We must all think critically about what our elected officials say, how they say it, and how their words may be weaponized to harm the health and safety of marginalized groups.”
The researchers controlled for age, gender, educational attainment, U.S. citizenship, and political identification. But like all research, the study includes some caveats.
“What we observed is that a shift in language increased bias towards Asian Americans. But what we do not have data on is whether that increase in bias led to other negative consequences,” Michaels and Darling-Hammond said. “We know there were many hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic. Was stigmatizing language partially to blame? And if it was, what can we do to reduce anti-Asian bias and related mistreatment?
“In addition, our study only analyzed anti-Asian bias through May 31st — the latest day for which data was available,” the researchers added. “There has been considerable change in both the spread of and media coverage about the coronavirus pandemic since that time. How have these shifts impacted anti-Asian bias? We can hope that anti-Asian bias has diminished, but only research will identify whether or not this is the case.”
The study, “After “The China Virus” Went Viral: Racially Charged Coronavirus Coverage and Trends in Bias Against Asian Americans“, was authored by Sean Darling-Hammond, Eli K. Michaels, Amani M. Allen, David H. Chae, Marilyn D. Thomas, Thu T. Nguyen, Mahasin M. Mujahid, and Rucker C. Johnson.