Coronavirus sparks a different kind of problem for social networks

Social media users have called Chinese people "dirty," used ethnic slurs and fueled Asian stereotypes.

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie award for consumer analysis
Queenie Wong
9 min read

Racist tweets are spreading on Twitter after the coronavirus outbreak.

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Like many young people, Cheenee Osera enjoys posting videos to TikTok. The 23-year-old has racked up almost 45,000 followers with her upbeat dance moves and lip-syncing.

But lately, the joy of the social network has faded. The reason: Osera started receiving a flood of hurtful remarks on her live videos after the novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December.

TikTok users will spray questions, like "Do you have the coronavirus?" or "Have you been to China?," at Osera, a Filipino-Chinese American student in Washington state. Some just write "coronavirus" alongside a green microbe emoji.

"It's upsetting and disheartening that us Asians are dealing with this," Osera said, adding that she blocked some users after filtering out comments with the words "corona" and "coronavirus" didn't stop the ignorant remarks. "People need to understand that just because you see an Asian, that doesn't necessarily mean we have the coronavirus."

Osera isn't the only person grappling with this social media woe. As COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus , spreads, Asians have become the target of hateful, racist and xenophobic remarks on social media platforms, including Facebook , Twitter , Instagram and TikTok. None of these companies seems fully prepared to handle the burst in bigotry, and all are struggling to balance their rules against hate speech with their support of free expression.

It's hard to quantify the spike in racist posts targeting Asians on social media. Facebook, Twitter and TikTok didn't respond to questions about whether they've seen an increase in hate speech reports since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Advocacy groups, however, say there's been a rise in discrimination, violence and harmful rhetoric directed toward Asians in recent months. CNET found dozens of hateful comments and posts about Asians across social media, including those that used ethnic slurs and perpetuated stereotypes.

"Language that fans flames of xenophobia endangers our communities who are experiencing heightened discrimination," Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil rights coalition, said in a tweet.

Politicians have also been accused of making xenophobic and racist remarks. President Donald Trump has referred to the contagion as the "Chinese virus," a term that critics say deflects from the global nature of the pandemic and stokes discrimination against Asian Americans and immigrants. Trump has said the term isn't racist because the illness was first detected in China. (On Monday, the president appeared to change tack, referring to the contagion simply as "the virus" during a press conference. He also said: "It's very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States and all around the world. They're amazing people, and the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way shape or form.")

Watch this: Let's talk about why 'Chinese virus' is such a harmful label

People of Asian descent aren't at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than other Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization has said that people should avoid referring to any disease using the name of a location. 

Still, racist remarks are spilling outside of social media and into the real world. In some cases, Asian people have been taunted or assaulted by people using coronavirus as an excuse. A man attacked an Asian woman wearing a mask in a New York subway station in a video tweeted by the New York Police Department Hate Crimes Task Force in February. A person who witnessed the incident said the attacker called the Asian woman a "diseased bitch." Two teens were arrested after allegedly beating up a 23-year-old Singaporean man in London earlier this month. The man, Jonathan Mok, told BBC News that one attacker who kicked him said, "I don't want your coronavirus in my country." Nearly two dozen Asian-Americans told The New York Times they were afraid to do activities such as grocery shopping and have been yelled at in public.

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, says the flood of bigoted comments will prove trying for the platforms.

"This is a test right now," Levin said. "The coronavirus, on a variety of levels, including misinformation and bigotry, are going to be part of the lesson plan as to what social media companies did right and wrong when the corporate history books are written."

Policing online hate speech

Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have similar rules against posting hate speech, but they appear to be enforcing the policies differently. CNET showed Facebook, Twitter and TikTok several hateful coronavirus-related comments and posts directed at Asians. Twitter left most of the posts up, while Facebook-owned Instagram and TikTok pulled them down. The rules are especially confusing for users who flag posts for hate speech but don't receive a clear explanation when they aren't removed. Some never hear back.

Twitter, which once earned the reputation as "the free speech wing of the free speech party," appears to allow more leeway than other platforms.


Twitter said this tweet and others that users have called racist doesn't violate its rules.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

In March, Chicago rapper Lil Reese, who uses the handle @LilReese300, tweeted that Chinese people are "nasty." He blamed them for screwing up the world, using an emoji to represent the planet. The tweet has more than 59,000 likes and was shared more than 15,000 times.

Not everyone approved of Lil Reese's sentiment, including skier Gus Kenworthy, who tweeted the rapper should consider a new handle -- @LilRacist300 -- on the platform.

Lil Reese didn't respond to an email from CNET asking for comment. However, the rapper posted a copy of the email to an Instagram story, adding "suck my wang a thang." Images shared on Instagram Stories disappear after 24 hours, but a company spokeswoman said it was removed early for violating the platform's rules against posting personally identifiable information and attacking someone based on ethnicity.

After the NBA abruptly suspended its season, Twitter users expressed outrage about the end of games, tweeting ethnic slurs at Asians and calling for a boycott of China. In one case, a user tweeted that Chinese people should enjoy their "Bat and Chimpanzee soup." Another user tweeted that he told a "Chinese bitch" who was offering a free food sample "NO CORONAVIRUS!!"

Twitter said those tweets didn't violate its rules, which prohibit users from repeatedly using slurs, tropes or other content that degrades someone. As of Monday evening, the tweets are still publicly visible.

Still, Twitter has asked some users to remove certain hateful tweets.

One user said on March 11 that Chinese people are "very dirty people" who started the "epidemic" and that "karma should be on them" and not the rest of the world. Twitter initially said that tweet didn't violate its rules, but after CNET asked the company for an explanation it was removed on Sunday. The company, which said Monday it won't be able to take action against every misleading COVID-19 tweet, appears to draw the line when the content clearly incites physical harm.

A tweet by John McAfee, the founder of the security company that bears his name, falsely stated the "Coronavirus cannot attack black people because it is a Chinese virus." The tweet was pulled down after a complaint by US Rep. Bobby Lee Rush, an Illinois Democrat.

Twitter said the tweet violated its rules and McAfee was locked out of his account until he removed it. The company recently broadened its definition of harm to include "claims that specific groups, nationalities are more susceptible to COVID-19." McAfee said on Facebook the tweet was a "joke making fun of the anti-Chinese racial conflicts sweeping the world." 

Rush, however, didn't find McAfee's humor amusing. "Companies like Facebook & Twitter need to step their game up when it comes to false and misleading information, especially when that information is downright racist," he said in a tweet.

Fueling Asian stereotypes

On TikTok, one video zoomed in on several Asian students wearing masks as music that included the phrase "coronavirus check" played in the background. The video attracted more than 90,000 likes before it was removed after CNET showed it to the service.


TikTok users accused a Korean-American creator of eating bats and spreading the virus. TikTok said the comments violate its rules and have been removed.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

In a popular video about what to bring while traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, a user commented that one Korean-American creator was "patient zero" and ate bats.

Asian TikTok creators have received comments on their videos asking if they have the virus. Some users have accused Asians of eating dogs, bats and snakes.

A TikTok spokeswoman said those comments violate the company's rules against content that "attacks or incites violence against an individual or a group of individuals on the basis of protected attributes," including ethnicity. "Broadly speaking, hate speech has no place on TikTok," she said. The comments have been removed. Chinese tech company ByteDance owns TikTok, an app known for its quirky short-form videos.

Some troubling posts are subtly racist. On Facebook-owned Instagram, a user wrote "Coronavirus for all" under a post about an annual dragon parade by the Mills 50 District in Orlando, Florida.

Grayson Gibson, a Florida photographer, reported the comment to Instagram for hate speech, but the company initially said the comment didn't violate its rules.

"Even if it's something as small as that, it's important to draw attention to it and get it taken down because I feel like a lot of racism towards Asians is kind of swept under the rug," said Gibson, who is half white and half Filipino.


A Belgian school posted this image on its Facebook page and Instagram account but removed it after facing backlash. Instagram said this image would violate its rules.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

After CNET reached out to Instagram, a company spokeswoman said Instagram doesn't allow content "designed to incite hatred towards others" and removed the comment for violating its rules.

In March, the Sint Paulusschool campus College Waregem in Belgium faced criticism after posting a photo on its Facebook and Instagram pages that showed students wearing Chinese traditional costumes, panda outfits and conical hats as they held up a sign that read "Corona Time." The school apologized in a statement, stating that the outfits had been chosen for an event long before the coronavirus outbreak, the Independent reported. 

"The students alluded to the recent events in a playful way by adding a sign. Neither the school team, nor the students involved, have ever had the intention of adopting a condescending or offensive attitude," the school said in the statement.

An Instagram spokeswoman said the photo violates its rules. The school removed the photo after the backlash.

Some users have seen racist comments pop up in private Facebook groups. Katherine Sliter, a psychometrician and consultant in Ohio, said a woman posted that "Chinese people eat weird things and are dirty, so their bodies can't fight germs and it spreads" in a private Facebook group for moms that had more than 10,000 members. Sliter, who declined to name the group, said she and others reported the post to the group's administrators and it's since been taken down.

Reporting hate

Meanwhile, advocacy groups are still trying to track hate incidents.

Marita Etcubañez, director of strategic initiatives at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, encourages users to report racist posts to both the companies and groups like AAAJ so the incidents are documented. The group runs a website that allows people to report hateful conduct, information that could help advocates figure out the scope of the problem and craft potential solutions.

"There's also power in sharing your story and feeling heard and for other folks to understand that if this happens to them, they're not alone," she said.

The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action also launched a website so users could report incidents of hate. Asians have been using #WashTheHate and #IAmNotAVirus to share their stories on social media. Asian-American celebrities including Lost actor Daniel Dae Kim, Mulan star Tzi Ma and Crazy Rich Asians actress Awkwafina have spoken out about racist language used during the pandemic.

"I am saddened by the rhetoric that has come out of this, and the cruelty that came as a result," Awkwafina said in an Instagram post on Tuesday. 

Osera, the TikTok user in Washington, took to Twitter to speak out against a user who wrote and misspelled coronavirus as a response to a comment she had made on another user's video.

"It's not that hard to be nice, you guys," she tweeted. "I don't understand why people find the need to hate."

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