The Perpetrators of Asian Scapegoating in the COVID-19 Pandemic (It’s the Media)

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

The Asian community worldwide has continued to face hateful, unjustified, and violent attacks in the pandemic. Thus, we need to take a step back and understand why and how these xenophobic narratives that scapegoat Asians as carriers of the virus proliferated in the media in the first place. Mainstream news and personalized social media unquestionably play a role in disseminating these misperceptions, both explicitly and implicitly. Is now finally the time to hold the media accountable for their portrayal of Asians and individuals of Asian descent as these instances have led to real consequences offline? 

Where we are (which we shouldn’t be)

In the span of the pandemic, we have witnessed anti-Asian hate crimes, from major incidences to micro-aggressions. On January 28, an 83-year-old Thai grandfather was brutally attacked by a 19-year-old teenager on the streets and died two days later, where the court pleaded the culprit not guilty because “he didn’t notice the race of the elderly man.” On March 26, 8 people, including 6 Asian women in Atlanta, were fatally shot by a man who simply “had a bad day.” Justice was not served for these innocent victims, who lost their lives to racist attackers. The pandemic has affected the Asian populations in many other ways. They encounter racial slurs, strangers spitting on them, and physical violence daily, where Asian American businesses are vandalized or discriminated against.

Anti-Asian narrative, conservative and tabloid media, what’s new?

While the media has done its part in shedding light and bringing awareness to these issues, their coverage has also contributed to discrimination and xenophobia, especially conservative media outlets. Running headlines and terms like “China kids stay home” and “China virus,” they blatantly associate the Asian community to the “exotic” origin of the virus and perpetuate the misconception of them being “virulent carriers” coming from “dirty and distant lands.” In the UK, tabloids have also actively exploited this misrepresentation where anti-immigration outlets like Daily Mail and The Sun bolster conspiracy theories that essentially blame the Chinese for the outbreak. 

As soon as the pandemic hit, a society ever segregated became even more divided, where these narratives manifested Asian people as the “embodiment of the virus.”

This xenophobic depiction of Asians is amplified by none other than former U.S. President Donald Trump, who publicly reiterated the term “Chinese virus” in his tweets and speeches, echoing to other Republican politicians. His deliberate word choice was condemned as this racist rhetoric alienates people of Asian descent in America. However, this narrative does not deviate from his usual anti-immigrant agenda, where Asian Americans are viewed as “perpetual foreigners” who are unable to assimilate into the host society. As soon as the pandemic hit, a society ever segregated became even more divided, where these narratives manifested Asian people as the “embodiment of the virus.”

Not just the conservative!: How (liberal) media outlets fall into the pitfall of misleading representations of Asians

While conservative news outlets shamelessly promote negative portrayals of Asians, many other news outlets, including those on the liberal side, have implicitly underlined the anti-Asian message through their careless use of images.

According to PR Week, UK COVID news stories had 33% of their visuals featuring East or Southeast Asians. Reuters, a primarily neutral news organization, also used a photo of an Asian-descent man wearing a face mask to demonstrate the economic impact of the coronavirus in their tweet and article. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal reported the first two COVID deaths in Washington state by accompanying an image of two men of Asian descent wearing face masks in Koreatown in Los Angeles. CNN, a left-leaning news broadcaster, also featured a generic image of an Asian woman wearing a face mask in its opinion piece about the flaws in the U.S. healthcare system in the pandemic.

It can spread anti-Asian racism by “associating them with the disease” even though people in many Asian countries wear masks for air pollution protection. 

Thus, according to Media Matters, the Asian American Journalists Association has raised concerns over this unconscious yet detrimental use of visuals. It can spread anti-Asian racism by “associating them with the disease” even though people in many Asian countries wear masks for air pollution protection. 

Even The New York Times, the most well-known liberal news outlet, did not necessarily use a misleading image of Asians yet ran the soft-racist tweet, “China has approved its fifth Covid-19 vaccine, and it’s made from the ovary cells of hamsters.” This low-key yet dangerous anti-Chinese or anti-Asian undertone can glorify the misconception of Asians being virus transmitters, putting them in a negative light and setting them up to more injustice.

Social Media’s Anti-Asian purveyors

As discussed in my article from more than one year ago (!), social media has been at the forefront of disseminating fake news about the coronavirus and baseless racist conspiracy theories. According to research, the more a social media user trusts that their feed provides accurate and factual information (instead of fake news), the more likely the user believes that the Chinese pose a realistic and symbolic threat to America. However, ordinary social media practices such as hashtags and memes also magnify the hate against Asians. This trend was the most evident at the beginning of the COVID era, where 72,000 posts with the hashtag #WuhanVirus and 10,000 posts with the hashtag #KungFlu were identified on Instagram in April 2020. Distasteful memes also emerged, where Chinese people were portrayed as bat eaters, directly reinforcing the outdated trope of “dirty” Asian food.

Nonetheless, the hatred against Asians was the most apparent on Twitter, where its affordances allow users to spread snappy and eye-catching retweets effortlessly. On March 8, 2020, Twitter retweets witnessed a 650% increase in the term “Chinese virus,” which then translated to an 800% increase in the use of this term in conservative news articles. One of the darkest corners of the Internet, the 4chan’s politically incorrect /pol/ forum, also had their share in the racist agenda, specifically in spreading Sinophobic slurs such as “chink”, “kungflu,” “bioterrorists,” and the “Wuhan flu.”

Time to speak up, mainstream media!

It is pretty ironic how mainstream media outlets report stories about hate crimes against the Asian community while also giving in to misleading and negative portrayals of Asians in the pandemic. However, a fact remains true: “Asians are being scapegoated,” as acclaimed by Daniel Dae Kim, a critically acclaimed Asian American actor. “They’re attacking our most vulnerable population, and no one in the mainstream media outside of the Asian American echo chamber is picking up this story,” he said, “[like] it’s OK to abuse physically or verbally abuse Asian Americans.”

Since anti-Asian hate crimes are (infuriatingly) not disappearing anytime soon, Western mainstream media outlets must be more responsible with their portrayal of Asians. They need to make conscious editorial decisions to move away from the implicit bias and “give credence to our existence and witness our pain.” But it takes more than this corrective measure to make up for the loss that the Asian community has endured in the past year. Mainstream media outlets need to showcase more positive portrayals of Asian stories and excellence because biases will soften when minority groups are depicted positively. 

We cannot reverse the suffering, but we can move forward by acknowledging that they exist and by standing up for the vulnerable. Then, and only then, justice will be served. #StopAsianHate


Cover: Laura Ciamei

Edited by: Yili Char

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