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31/05/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Fake News and the Coronavirus: How the Media verbalize Xenophobia in the New Decade

As the Coronavirus spreads so do the misinformation and fake news that lead to xenophobia around the globe. Stephanie writes about her own experience as an Asian student abroad.


The world is on fire. And the key player in the 2020 hysteria undoubtedly goes to the nCOV or the novel Coronavirus, first found in a wet market in Wuhan (China). As the virus spreads globally, misinformation on the media (aka fake news) about the epidemic also goes haywire. And the real, severe consequences of the misinformation have been observed among the Asian community, both in and outside the continent. 

Fake News: Xenophobia in the Digital Age

Fake news has become a prominent issue of the media in recent years leading to the spread of incorrect, biased, and racially-charged information. This issue becomes even more apparent with the media coverage of the Coronavirus; from local newspapers, magazines, official announcements to social media platforms, details regarding the Coronavirus contain elements of the very-much-still-exist xenophobia against the Asian population. Some of this was quite basic, from a fake “health issue alert” in Australia warning its citizens to avoid Chinese-populated areas to the fake flyers advising people to stay away from Asian-American restaurants such as Panda Express. 

And of course, this transmission of misinformation would be incomplete without the Internet trolls. An Australian Instagram user accused Sydney shops of selling “contaminated” fortune cookies, rice and “Chinese Red Bull”. European and American media, countries where Asians are considered a minority, also joined in the train of fake news and misleading information. A local French newspaper’s front page ran the headline “Alerte Jaune” (“Yellow Alert”) and a Danish newspaper featured an editorial cartoon of a Chinese flag with the virus symbol instead of stars. Racially insensitive content was present in UC Berkeley’s social media. Although more than 40% of the school is represented by Asians, their health services stated “xenophobia” as a normal reaction to the virus, which received backlash from the student population. 

As an Asian, I expected Asian nationals to encourage and lift one another up amidst this uncomfortable situation. However, this does not seem to be the case any longer. Instead, we turn our backs on one another and build walls.

This sentiment further deepened in the Asian continent, where the virus originated. In Malaysia, social media posts spread the stigmatized message of Chinese eating “exotic meat” as the cause of the outbreak. This idea was reiterated by a Burmese-language video titled “A Visit to Wuhan,” which was warning the Burmese citizens about the city that “finds bat soup delicious,” gaining 5.4 million views on Facebook within four days. A Whatsapp (owned by Facebook) message chain in Indonesia was also found to have disseminated inaccurate claims of Chinese-made products, from mandarin oranges to Xiaomi phones, carrying the nCOV.

Japanese Twitter users also contributed to the hysteria through the hashtag #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan that has trended as the outbreak intensifies. South Korea’s Youtube also circulated a conspiracy-theory video claiming that the coronavirus was leaked by a Chinese biochemical weapons facility. As these Asian countries are in close vicinity with China, this deceptive disinformation has caused serious panic and racism among Asians. As an Asian, I expected Asian nationals to encourage and lift one another up amidst this uncomfortable situation. However, this does not seem to be the case any longer. Instead, we turn our backs on one another and build walls. And now that the epidemic has reached a global scale, these xenophobic instances have become increasingly visible around the world…

Why I now Live in Fear

Many countries, including Japan, South Korea, Italy, and France, have chosen to deny service to Chinese (or Chinese-looking people) with written signs. Thus, Asians, especially students, have been sharing stories about the discriminatory behavior they received amidst this outbreak. Huynh, a Vietnamese student who lives in Monterey Park, California, shared how she received stares for coughing and how she felt self-conscious about the fact that because she’s Asian, people might think she has the coronavirus. Sam, a master’s student at the University of Manchester, also expressed how his ethnicity has made him feel like he was part of a “threatening and diseased mass”.

These comments have encapsulated and verbalized my inner thoughts throughout these last few months. As an Asian student in the Netherlands, I have never faced discrimination. However, since the virus outbreak was recorded, I could feel something changing. I suddenly became hyper-conscious and nervous about coughing or sneezing in public spaces, fearing that people would avoid sitting next to me. When I was sick earlier this year, even my mom told me to not cough in public because it was a “sensitive time. ” A time where my racial identity can affect people’s attitudes towards me.

When I was sick earlier this year, even my mom told me to not cough in public because it was a “sensitive time. ” A time where my racial identity can affect people’s attitudes towards me.

I realize how powerful media coverage can be as it plays an integral role in perpetuating the stigma against Asians. Although I understand that the media is not the mere culprit of people’s racist preconceptions, in this time of the crisis, the media have potentially accelerated and magnified this process through its global connectivity and virality. 

Media Companies to the Rescue?

As media companies recognize their own powerful yet destructive power, they have offered solutions to minimize the repercussions that misinformation might have caused, according to the BBC. Facebook announced that it would be using “existing fact-checkers to review and expose misinformation,” and provide links to clarify wrong data. Instagram also took up the cause by restricting some hashtags regarding the virus. Twitter, on the other hand, took a more informational approach where a prompt is made visible when its users search for the nCOV, recommending the users to get informed via the World Health Organization and Centres for Disease Control. It also suspended a financial website for an article hinting the involvement of a Chinese scientist in the outbreak.

Even the less conventional social media sites such as TikTok and Reddit have issued policies addressing fake news about the virus. TikTok added a link to the WHO’s website and reminded its users to report illegitimate content on its platform, while Reddit provided a thread that answers questions regarding the virus from official sources. Fake news is not the main cause of the xenophobia against Asians recently, but it verbalizes the hate and racism that unsurprisingly has not ceased to exist in our modern world. Therefore, the media have become more conscious and accountable for its power, and thus, it is wise to keep ourselves accurately informed and understand others’ hidden struggles during this hostile climate. 

Nonetheless, the media, especially social media, if well regulated, can offer real opportunities for those that experience discriminatory treatment to speak out and raise awareness. The Chinese in France took advantage of this global connectivity and shared their experience using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I am not a virus”). While we are divided by the media at the moment, it also brings hopes for a united future. As for myself, I won’t take any further racist and xenophobic remarks on the media as acceptable excuses for “protecting” oneself against the virus. It never should have, and never should be. 

Cover: Colin Behrens

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