As the world nervously watches the progression of the coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, earlier this year, people are posting to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok about it.
But many of these posts are using racist tropes to foment and reinforce Sinophobic and anti-immigration views – particularly in Australia, where at the 2016 census 5.6% of people identified themselves as of Chinese ancestry.
As with all big breaking news events today, there’s been plenty of false and misleading information spreading about the coronavirus online. Some of these viral hoaxes have targeted Chinese Australians and used Asian stereotypes to support their claims and spread fear.
A state MP in Queensland publicly debunked a fake media release from a government department warning citizens against travelling to areas “with Chinese nationals of ratio of 1 to 3 non-Chinese Australians”.
The Australian communications minister warned people not to believe a bizarre viral post on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp that claimed traces of the coronavirus had been found in products such as Mi Goreng noodles, wagyu beef and "Chinese Red Bull", adding "traces may also be found in normal Red Bull".
Several of Australia's biggest right-wing Facebook pages have jumped on the coronavirus panic in an attempt to further press their anti-immigration views.
Federal politician Pauline Hanson — who was first elected in 1996 on an anti-Asian immigration platform, before revising that to an anti-Muslim platform when she was re-elected in 2016 — suggested ending Chinese immigration and travel until a coronavirus cure is found.
On other platforms, coronavirus memes featuring tropes about Chinese people are rife too. On TikTok, there are dozens, many of which use the same “It's Corona Time” sound.
There are entire accounts set up for coronavirus memes on Instagram with a number of posts featuring racial tropes.
The use of racist tropes to talk about coronavirus is not confined to social media. Melbourne News Corp tabloid the Herald Sun included a red mask graphic on its front page with the words "Chinese Virus" and "Pandamonium" printed on it.
University of Sydney professor and former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane told BuzzFeed News in an email he’s not surprised that racism has emerged out of the coronavirus panic.
"Racism feeds on fear and anxiety," Soutphommasane said. "Equally, you could say that concern about the coronavirus has given some a cover for venting racism at Chinese or Asian people. The coronavirus may have originated in China, but it isn’t a ‘Chinese’ virus. Viral diseases don’t have ethnic, racial or national characteristics."
Founder of the Australian racial justice advocacy group Democracy in Colour Tim Lo Surdo reviewed examples of posts provided by BuzzFeed News and agreed that the framing of coronavirus enables racism against Asians.
"These are all examples of people exploiting a public health issue to justify the racist beliefs they’ve always had," Lo Surdo said in an email.
Both Soutphommasane and Lo Surdo called for people — whether in the media or on social media — to be responsible in the way they post about the virus.
But users aren’t just posting racist content. Some are using it to call the racism out. TikTok user @pixieahlamm posted a video of her overlaid with text "me watching people make racist remarks bc of the virus as if they’re not the ones who dont wash their ass".
She lipsyncs to audio "Are you serious right now? Are you being serious right now? It makes zero sense. Just pennies. Damn".