(CN) — Spreading invisibly online much the same way the coronavirus does, a new study published in Wednesday suggests there is a strong relationship between social media use and prejudice against Chinese Americans during the current pandemic infecting the world.
“The more you believe social media, the more likely you are to think Asians are a threat during the pandemic,” explained Stephen Croucher, who leads the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing at Massey University in New Zealand.
Surveying nearly 300 people in the United States in the early months of 2020, Croucher and his team of researchers found that the more an individual believes their most used daily social media is fair and accurate, the more that person sees Chinese Americans as a threat to his health and welfare, in the study published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.
“This was a big finding for us, as it shows the relationship between a pandemic, social media use and prejudice,” Croucher said during an interview from his office in Wellington.
Croucher and his colleagues used an online questionnaire of 277 white Americans to gather data on demographics, social media use and various sentiments about Chinese Americans. Data collection included which social media platforms were used, how often and how reliable those platforms were. Those results were measured against the extent to which respondents believe their jobs, healthcare and way of life are threatened by minority groups.
Croucher is no stranger to the U.S. He grew up on the East Coast and moved frequently because his father was in the Navy.
Factoring in algorithms that tailor news to user beliefs and choices, Croucher said some results of his study were expected, such as finding that gender plays a significant role in predicting realistic and symbolic threats. While women tend to experience realistic or symbolic threats from Chinese Americans, men experienced higher levels of anxiety based on perceived threats.
“We tend to think that men are rational and women are emotional,” Croucher stated. “It’s actually the other way around.”
But other findings were surprising; namely, respondents who identified politically as a Democrat scored higher than Republicans on perceiving Chinese Americans as a symbolic threat.
“Many self-identifying liberals are supportive of equality, but when they think their lives are threatened, acceptance of diversity might be challenged,” a development Croucher called “really interesting.”
Compounding the issue, Croucher and his researchers found that liberal voters in other countries, including New Zealand, Spain and Italy, did not respond with corresponding prejudice against minority populations. Croucher is currently leading studies in 15 countries, including Russia, Turkey, the UK, India and Sinagpore to make sense of his findings in a global context. Those results should be available within a year.
Political rhetoric has put the coronavirus on “everyone’s radar all the time,” Croucher noted, prompting a saturation of information on social media channels that leads to higher levels of fear when inconsistent messages come from government officials.
But he resists seeing social media as a scapegoat. While social media makes it easier to spread misinformation, it also makes it easier to spread the truth, he explained.
“Social media has given people an outlet to express themselves in a community,” he said.
That outlet has come at a cost, however. More than 1,700 incidents of harassments and assaults against Asian Americans have been reported since March 19, according to a website maintained by Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, San Francisco State University and Chinese for Affirmative Action.
Until the pandemic, anti-Asian hate crime has been declining for at least the past two decades, and the FBI has not reported any anti-Asian motivated murders since at least 2003.
“In the case of Covid-19, social media, and other media, were and are being used as venues to share and build ideas, values and morals,” Croucher said. “Many of these are very positive, but some are not.”
Croucher said the inspiration for his study came after he encountered a racist Asian caricature on Facebook and discussed it with a research assistant. That discussion prompted both of them to dig deeper into what was driving such prejudice, spawning studies that seek to understand various societies.
Croucher hopes his study will increase understanding of prejudice and hatred in a health context. He noted that pandemics are routine events in human society, and he hopes that the more we know, the easier we can deal with the next global health event.
“It’s going to happen again.”