UC Berkeley researchers find using terms such as ‘China virus’ increases bias

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The researchers of the study said they were motivated by the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, as more than 2,500 hate crimes against Asian Americans have been recorded since the COVID-19 outbreak began. (Photo by Daniel Arauz under CC BY 2.0.)

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A team of UC Berkeley researchers found that when media outlets describe COVID-19 with terms such as “China virus,” they can increase implicit biases.

UC Berkeley School of Public Health doctoral candidate Eli Michaels and Goldman School of Public Policy doctoral candidate Sean Darling-Hammond co-authored the study, noting that data from Project Implicit, which measures explicit and implicit biases, indicates that racial bias against Asian Americans had been slowly decreasing since 2007.

The study found that this trend shifted and bias increased after March 8, when there was an increase in the use of stigmatizing terms such as “China virus,” and this trend was more pronounced in conservative individuals.

“Rhetoric is not harmless,” Michaels and Darling-Hammond said in an email. “The use of ‘Chinese virus’ and related terms had an immediate, measurable impact on collective implicit biases.”

The study found that there was a 650% increase in Twitter retweets using “Chinese virus” and related terms March 8. On March 9, there was an 800% increase in the use of these terms in conservative news media articles.

The researchers said in the email that they were motivated to do this research by the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, as more than 2,500 hate crimes against Asian Americans have been recorded since the COVID-19 outbreak began.

Additionally, the researchers noted that when individuals see Asian Americans as more “foreign” they are more likely to be hostile and discriminatory, with one example being in hiring. Chronic racial discrimination can lead to stress and negative health outcomes, they added.

“When we experience chronic racial discrimination, it can cause toxic psychosocial stress and yield lifelong impacts on mental and physical health,” the researchers said in the email. “We do not have to be prisoners of the moment to understand this phenomenon.”

In order to address these problems, the researchers said people need to stop using stigmatizing rhetoric and hold elected officials accountable when they use inflammatory language.

The researchers also said society should work to elevate media that portray Asian people in a “positive and holistic light.”

Additionally, the researchers said it is important to acknowledge that this phenomenon is not new, and in order to avoid negative outcomes, the narrative must be changed from “us vs. them” to “we.”

The researchers also said while some argue the use of “Chinese virus” and terms like it are just semantics, language is very powerful and small changes in language can affect behavior.

“What we say unquestionably has an impact,” the researchers said in the email. “Given ample research demonstrating that our biases are responsive to social stimuli, it stands to reason that rhetoric can shift our biases.”

Mela Seyoum is a race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.