Catalano
Theresa Catalano, an associate professor in the department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education and a critical discourse analyst at UNL, poses in the Sheldon Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Theresa Catalano.

In press conferences and on Twitter, President Donald Trump has repeatedly used the term “Chinese virus” to describe the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, two University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers are scouring social media comments in the United States and China to analyze the impact of the Trump administration’s use of that term and other racially divisive descriptions of the virus.

Theresa Catalano, an associate professor in the department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education and a critical discourse analyst at UNL, and Peiwen Wang, a doctoral student from China, have compiled data from Trump’s press conferences and more than 3,000 comments in response to the speeches from YouTube and Weibo, what Wang described as a Chinese version of Twitter. They are examining the comments and public perception for a study that will wrap up this month. 

“We’re talking about the way that language is used to kind of convey the broader ideas communicated,” Catalano said. “So, not just saying the sentence, not exactly the words, but what do they connote? What do those words actually imply? And what are the impacts of that?”

Wang said hearing the term “Chinese virus” and seeing its effect on the public’s perception of Asian Americans was upsetting to her. She was in Catalano’s intercultural communication class this spring, so she enlisted the help of her professor to examine the effect. 

“I approached Dr. Catalano and expressed how sad I was towards the mistreatment of these Asian and Chinese Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, I also mentioned to Dr. Catalano the idea of doing something as a researcher, to truly use what I have learned theoretically, and to support those communities in our own way,” Wang said.

IMG 3509 - UNL researchers study Trump use of term ‘Chinese virus’
Peiwen Wang is a UNL doctoral student and researcher working on the study. Photo courtesy of Theresa Catalano.

The COVID-19 pandemic began in Wuhan, China, and has infected 17.3 million people and killed 674,291 as of Aug. 1, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO warns against naming viruses after their places of origin because of adverse effects and prejudice. 

According to the WHO, names such as “swine flu” and “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” can disparage certain economic sectors or groups of people and cause unjustified discrimination.

Catalano and Wang’s research is funded by a $3,440 grant from the Office of Research and Economic Development COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant Program at UNL. Once the findings have been analyzed, they will be published in an edited volume with Bloomsbury Linguistics about the impact of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis on health-related communication and public discourse and presented at a national conference on Applied Linguistics.

Catalano and Wang said they’ve found arguments and rhetoric from the Trump administration reflected in YouTube comments. When their findings are published, they said they want to shed light on the effects of this term on relations between China and the United States. 

“We hope that people will understand more clearly the way in which public discourse such as this can have detrimental effects on communities dealing with a public health threat

such as COVID-19, but also the way in which it serves as a potent distraction from the government’s handling of the crisis,” Catalano said. “We also hope people will learn more about the strategies used to manipulate public opinion so that in the future, they can resist and counter them.”