Research shows 'virus of hate' can be offset with more scientific names of diseases

A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health Thursday found that social media posts using hashtags such as #Chinesevirus or #Chinaflu corresponded to greater anti-Asian sentiment than posts with hashtags #coronavirus or #COVID19 which are the official scientific names for the pandemic virus and disease.

"People comment #chinavirus or #kungflu on our posts, on Facebook, on Instagram, even through Twitter," said Kari Okubo, social media director of #HateisaVirus, who developed the hashtag #HateisaVirus. "It hurts seeing people who live amongst you, that are in your community, having this rhetoric. So it was painful. But it just inspired us even more to use our voices." 

UCSF Assistant Professor Yulin Hswen, in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics, worked with researchers at Harvard, Boston Children's Hospital and UCLA to analyze some 700,000 tweets and more than 1 million hashtags posted in March of last year.

During that month, a debate emerged after President Trump started using terms such as "Chinese virus," "Chinese flu," and "Kung flu." 

The researchers say data shows a sharp increase in the use of anti-Asian hashtags following a March 16 tweet by President Trump.

"Around 50% of those hashtags that were associated with "Chinese virus" were anti-Asian in terms of their sentiment," said Hswen, explaining that in comparison. "Only about 20% of hashtags that were associated with COVID-19 were of anti-Asian sentiment."

The professor says she hopes the data will prompt scientists, politicians and the public to think more carefully about how they refer to diseases, to avoid unnecessary and harmful stigmatization.

"When you attach ethnicities or nationalities to disease-related terms, they can really have a stigmatizing effect on these communities," said Hswen. "We should not be using these kinds of terminology because of the repercussions that is occurring with hate on these communities and turning into hate crimes as well."

Hswen says the public's use of terms such as H1N1 and SARS are good examples of people adopting official names which describe the genetics or symptoms of viruses and diseases in a neutral way. 

Hswen says the awareness about naming diseases should include the recent variants of the coronavirus identified in the U.K., South Africa, and California.

"I think there needs to be a standard method of terminology that needs to be developed," said Hswen. 

The increase this past year in anti-Asian sentiments and attacks prompted the Anti-Defamation League to create and post a free lesson plan online for teachers to use and discuss with students.

It is called "Virus has no Nationality" and directly addresses the issue of social media posts.

The increase this past year in anti-Asian sentiments prompted the Anti-Defamation League to create and post a free lesson plan online

"In order to stop the spread of a virus, you need to combat it with information, with good practices," said Seth Brysk, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco.  "We need to do the same thing with the virus of hate." 

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or