When you become the target of racist disinformation - MrLiambi's blog


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Sunday 27 June 2021

When you become the target of racist disinformation

Racist disinformation has targeted people of Asian descent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nothing about what's happened to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the coronavirus pandemic surprises Russell Jeung. They've been spat on, called racist names, harassed in grocery stores, and violently attacked. Jeung, co-founder of the advocacy coalition STOP AAPI Hate, says this is what happens when one of the most powerful people in the world â€" the president of the United States â€" uses racist messaging to discuss a global respiratory pandemic.

"The term 'Chinese virus' did two things," he says, referring to the term Trump adopted at the pandemic's outset. "It racialized the virus, so it wasn't biological, it's a Chinese virus. And then it stigmatized the people, because Chinese people were the disease carriers. It's deadly because people make automatic assumptions and get triggered when they see Asians. They racially profile us and go into fight-or-flight mode...they attack us, they push our grandparents...The stigmatization of Asians has had disastrous consequences."

Since the emergence of COVID-19, some combination of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theory has been weaponized to target people perceived to be Chinese. Born of an information crisis, the narrative that they were responsible for the pandemic gave believers someone to blame, and permission to act on their bigotry.

As experts agonize over the proliferation of falsehoods during the pandemic, which has been described as an "infodemic," there's limited understanding of how that same crisis erodes the well-being of those in the crosshairs of conspiracy theories and disinformation. The data collected by STOP AAPI Hate suggests that becoming a target, whether as an individual or part of a collective group, can lead to intense mental health effects, including elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. These anecdotal findings are supported by studies on racial trauma as well as recent research on COVID-19-related racism and the mental health of Chinese-American families.

"The impact of the interpersonal violence has been traumatizing for the Asian-American community."

"The impact of the interpersonal violence has been traumatizing for the Asian-American community," says Jeung, who is a professor in the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University. "It's been fear-provoking, it's been angering."

The rise of anti-China sentiment throughout the pandemic illustrates how misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories are more than a problem of poor critical thinking or media literacy skills, or low trust in government, news media, and public health officials. This information crisis also represents a profound mental health issue that affects not just believers but, arguably more importantly, the people and communities singled out for suspicion and harassment.

Disinformation is nothing new

The spread of deliberately false or misleading information is often treated as a new phenomenon, the product of a hyperconnected society in which nearly anyone can use digital tools and platforms to broadcast and manipulate a message.

Yet Dr. Alice Marwick, Ph.D., an associate professor of media and technology studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that, just like conspiracy theories, disinformation has long been with us in the form of state, media, and political propaganda. Marwick says "disinformative characters," which are drawn as "larger than life" and become the subject of frequent commentary by powerful actors, are a defining characteristic of false information shared by the government and media.

Take, for example, gay men who were depicted as deviants during the HIV/AIDS crisis; the so-called "welfare queen," a racist trope that rose to prominence during the 1980s by portraying Black women as schemers who took advantage of government largesse; and Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps during World War II because of their perceived disloyalty.

Disinformation is "a key way in which whiteness in the United States has been reinforced and reproduced."

Earlier this year, Marwick and other scholars highlighted these and other examples as case studies in their "Critical Disinformation Studies" syllabus, a project that frames disinformation as "a key way in which whiteness in the United States has been reinforced and reproduced, in addition to heteronormativity and class privilege."

In other words, disinformation is often racist. Similarly, the authors of a Pediatrics study published last fall on the mental health effects of COVID-19 racism on Chinese-American families wrote: "This heightened xenophobia during this pandemic reflects perceptions of Chinese Americans as 'perpetual foreigners,' threatening the physical and cultural health of a white, Anglo-dominant U.S. society."

While Marwick and her co-authors didn't consider how becoming the reviled subject of disinformation influences mental health, it's clear that the government and media wielded shame against a marginalized community in each case study. That shame was then encoded in practice and law to further humiliate the vulnerable, and achieve certain policy goals. Recall how gay men, until 2015, were banned for life from donating blood, or how welfare reform in the 1990s was designed to prevent abuse rather than help families, or how Japanese Americans couldn't reclaim the property or earnings they'd lost during incarceration. When it's aimed at a marginalized group, disinformation can inflict unique stress, anxiety, and trauma.

A demonstrator at a Stop AAPI Hate Rally in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 20, 2021.
A demonstrator at a Stop AAPI Hate Rally in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 20, 2021. Credit: Nicole Craine/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When you don't feel safe walking down the street

Trump's use of the term "China virus," along with other offensive phrases that singled out Chinese identity as inexorably linked to COVID-19, created an enemy where none existed. As went Trump, so did countless others. High-profile personalities, including deceased conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh and the internet poster known as Q, floated the conspiracy theory that the Chinese government created coronavirus as a bioweapon that would "bring down Donald Trump." The theories metastasized. The Chinese government produced its own disinformation accusing the U.S. of engineering the virus.

The term "China virus"...created an enemy where none existed.

One popular theory held that Chinese people who ate bat soup during the pandemic were responsible for the virus' spread. The misinformation drew on videos in which people consumed the dish, but that footage had been filmed outside of China well before COVID-19 emerged. Fact-checking such claims and protesting Trump's language couldn't stop mounting anti-Chinese sentiment.

A new report on anti-China sentiment published by People's Action, a community organizing group, detailed how "threat narratives" casting China as a menace to the U.S. and its people fueled anti-Asian racism.

Tobita Chow, the report's author, says it can be challenging to discern what information shared about China and Asian people during the pandemic is conspiracy theory, misinformation, or disinformation. That's because many of the related subjects, including the so-called lab leak theory, can shift in meaning depending on who's talking.

Chow, director of People's Action project Justice Is Global, a progressive organizing effort, believes that certain political and media actors manipulate ideas so that in one setting people may discuss a legitimate question about the origins of the coronavirus, but in another setting the conversation hints at nefariousness or even blatantly asserts that the Chinese government was behind the pandemic. The discourse becomes so slippery, particularly on social media, that it's difficult to categorize what type of false information people are sharing.

"There is a risk in thinking about this as a problem of people getting the wrong facts," says Chow. "Those sorts of strategies are not well-calibrated to addressing the problem."

In March 2020, when STOP AAPI Hate was founded, the coalition began collecting reports from people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent who experienced harassment and violence. In the year that followed, they logged 6,603 incidents. One Bay Area parent said that her 8-year-old daughter had been "teased & humiliated" by classmates who used the terms "Kung-flu" and "coronavirus." Someone from Arizona reported that while shopping in a grocery store, a man called them a "Chinese Motherf***er." When the victim responded by saying they weren't from China, the man responded: "Doesn't matter â€" you are all the same and you are a virus."

Former President Trump crossed out corona and replaced it with Chinese in his notes photographed in March 2020 at the White House.
Former President Trump crossed out corona and replaced it with Chinese in his notes photographed in March 2020 at the White House. Credit: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

In May, the organization released a report detailing the mental health effects for Asian Americans who experienced racism during the pandemic. It found that respondents who'd been discriminated against were more stressed by bigotry than the pandemic itself. Those experiences were also more strongly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

"We know that what is happening is impacting loss of safety for Asian Americans and that's so intricately tied to mental health."

"We know that what is happening is impacting loss of safety for Asian Americans and that's so intricately tied to mental health," says Dr. Anne Saw, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical-community psychology at DePaul University who conducted a follow-up study of respondents who sent reports to STOP AAPI Hate. Nearly all of them said they believed that the U.S. was now more dangerous for Asian Americans. In a broader national study of Asian Americans conducted by Saw, three-quarters of participants said they felt the country had become increasingly unsafe for them.

"That's a really profound finding because it really speaks to the fundamental core impact that discrimination is having on Asian Americans," says Saw, who is also vice president of the Asian American Psychological Association. "If you don't feel safe walking down the street, obviously your health, your mental health, everything in your life is impacted."

Saw also found that the majority of participants in both surveys believed that social and mass media reports about COVID-19, as well as political rhetoric, had increased negative attitudes or bias toward Asian Americans.

The Pediatrics study revealed that many of the 543 adults surveyed, along with their children, had personally experienced or witnessed several types of racial discrimination online or in person at least once during the pandemic. A quarter of parents and youth reported witnessing racial discrimination in person or online daily, which is associated with worse mental health. The co-authors of the Pediatrics study found that experiences of racial discrimination during the pandemic were linked with increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. Parents' perception of discrimination also appeared to negatively affect their children's level of anxiety and symptoms of depression.

Dr. Charissa S.L. Cheah, the study's lead author, and a developmental psychologist and director of the Culture, Child, and Adolescent Development Laboratory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that while the survey results can't prove that discrimination caused worse mental health, there's an overwhelming link between the two experiences, which makes sense given the heightened fear.

"The fates of a lot of groups are tied to each other"

Asian Americans have long lived with the impact of disinformation that portrayed them as a "yellow peril" or as "diseased" and "dangerous," says Cheah.

"What we're seeing now is a resurfacing of a lot of these ideas," she says. "It didn't take long for people to fall back on these stereotypes."

Other types of disinformation have depicted people of Asian descent as loyal to another country. During World War II, Japanese Americans were commonly stereotyped as traitors to the U.S., including by the cartoonist Dr. Seuss. His illustrations during that period portrayed Japanese Americans as happy saboteurs. In one drawing from 1942, a sea of smiling Japanese Americans line up to receive a brick of TNT, presumably to destroy the United States from within.

When disinformation casts a marginalized group as sinister and the idea becomes entrenched in the public consciousness, the falsehoods never really die. Instead, they're resurrected in different forms. Cheah says that stereotypes played for jokes, like the Hollywood portrayal of Asian American men as scheming or fumbling outsiders (see: Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or the controversial Dong Nguyen in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), are connected to more direct styles of disinformation.

Cheah says that what passes for humor when people aren't feeling threatened can in fact build upon existing resentment and hatred, which erupts in times of trouble: "They're not really more or less harmful versions of these stereotypes â€" they're all connected."

"We're not helpless victims, we fight back."

She also believes that the mental health effects of disinformation stretch beyond the affected community at the center of a particular story, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone could be next, because when a crisis strikes, some people are prone to viewing certain groups as the cause of their suffering and the source of their fear and anxiety. Attacking them may provide a false and harmful sense of control, says Cheah.

"It's really [a] shared issue that targets the safety and well-being of the entire nation," she says. "The fates of a lot of groups are tied to each other."

The spread of disinformation about people of Asian descent requires a complex response. For Russell Jeung, fighting the consequences of COVID-19 disinformation and racism means organizing public protests, advocating for expanded civil rights protections and ethnic studies, lobbying for federal dollars to fund community safety and support programs, and providing culturally competent therapy to help people deal with the effects of racial trauma. Jeung says that cultural practices, like coming together to organize chaperones for elders, can promote resilience in the face of attacks.

"We've experienced the yellow peril stereotyping and violence throughout Asian American history," says Jeung. "And in every case we're not helpless victims, we fight back."

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. â€" 8:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.

Source : http://feeds.mashable.com/~r/Mashable/~3/HCnTukaNemU/covid-19-disinformation-anti-asian-racism

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