title. Online Harassment & Racism during the COVID-19 Pandemic

date. 09.01.2020

author. Stephanie Tong (stephanie.tong@wayne.edu)

Although the focus of SMART Labs @ Wayne has typically been on social media, interpersonal interaction, and relationships, like many researchers our focus has shifted toward the COVID-19 pandemic. Though our popular media has reported diligently on the rising coronavirus infection rates, death toll, and financial effects, one "social stressor" that has seen comparatively less attention is increasing discrimination and harassment of Asian Americans. The origination of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China has led to a xenophobic response here in America. In the short period from March 19 to April 1, 2020, an astounding 1,135 harassment complaints were reported to the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council—an increase of 67.3% in verbal harassment and 10% in physical assault. Such numbers reflect the current vilification of Asians in America, whom many blame as the cause of the coronavirus.

As social media scholars, our attention was drawn to the hate speech that started appearing online in the early stages of the pandemic. Reports from March 2020 indicated that anti-Chinese hate speech on Twitter has skyrocketed, estimating a staggering 900% increase. Over 80,000 tweets containing phrases like "Chink Virus," "Gook Flu," and "#KungFlu" reflect how easily racial slurs can be posted and disseminated via social media. President Trump's use of the term "Chinese Virus" to describe the coronavirus---a naming tactic that is explicitly discouraged by the World Health Organization---indicates how such rhetoric is becoming normalized as a way for Americans to deal with their mounting pandemic fear by blaming a foreign enemy.

Although clear evidence has emerged showing how online and offline harassment against Asian Americans is increasing during the pandemic, this doesn't necessarily mean that all Americans are aware of this issue. It's easy to see how many of us could lack such awareness, because when something isn't happening directly to you, it can be hard to perceive it as a problem.

 

In May 2020, we surveyed 1,767 Americans, asking them about their current quality of life during the pandemic, their perceptions of increasing online harassment of Asian Americans, how they respond to this rise in pandemic-related racism, and any subsequent effects on their mental health.

 

Our results revealed the following key findings:

trump changes speech notes to chinese virus

A close-up of President Trump’s notes shows where “Corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

  1. During the pandemic, Asian Americans reported similar levels of physical health, (un)employment, and overall quality of life as non-Asian Americans. However, Asian Americans reported experiencing significantly higher levels of negative emotions (depression, anxiety, and despair) than non-Asian Americans.

  2. Asian Americans perceived increasing online pandemic-related racism as more problematic than non-Asian Americans.

  3. Finally, we saw that those who responded to the perceived threat of racism with greater resilience reported better overall psychological health.

In sum, our findings suggest that when people perceive the disruption caused by pandemic-related racial discrimination, and they are able to respond to it with resilience, they simultaneously report better overall psychological health. Notably, being unaware of increasing online harassment doesn't mitigate its negative emotional and psychological effects among Asian Americans, as our first key finding shows. Instead, decreased attention to online racism seems to inhibit the activation of resilience and any subsequent positive impacts on psychological wellbeing.

For more details on the study (including additional results and description of methodology), please download the full Racism & Resilience White Paper, the first in the SMART Labs' COVID-19 Research Series. 

© 2020 SMART Labs @ Wayne. Photos by Jake Mulka & Ryan Tong