White Democrats and Regular Social Media Users More Likely to Perceive Chinese People as a Threat, Study Finds

White Americans who use social media every day are more likely to perceive Chinese people as a threat, a study has shown. Researchers also found Democrats are more likely to see them as a threat than Republicans—a finding at odds with past studies on this topic.

Since COVID-19 emerged in China late last year, there has been an increase in incidents of racism, discrimination and violence against those perceived to be Asian, particularly in the United States, according to research.

This prompted a team from Massey University, New Zealand, to investigate the potential role played by social media platforms, which they say have been relied on significantly while people socially distance amid the pandemic.

The study published in the journal Frontiers in Communication involved 274 white people born in America who answered questions about their attitudes towards China and people they perceived as Chinese, both generally and in relation to COVID-19.

Questions were designed to measure what the researchers defined as potentially "realistic threats"—for instance to the respondents' welfare, political and economic power, and physical and material well-being—and "symbolic threats" to their "way of life" in the U.S.. The research also documented feelings of anxiety towards Chinese people, as well as negative stereotypical beliefs. Participants provided their demographic information, stated how often they used social media, and whether they trusted what they saw on platforms they used on a daily basis.

Lead author Stephen Croucher, professor of communication at Massey University, told Newsweek that although the sample size was small the survey was representative of the U.S. population. Their method enabled them to measure prejudice on a spectrum, with all respondents showing some form of prejudice

The data revealed women were more likely to see Chinese people a realistic or symbolic threat. Men were, meanwhile, more likely to feel anxiety towards Chinese people, including feeling irritated, suspicious, defensive, and self-conscious.

When it came to political affiliation, Democrats were more likely to perceive Chinese Americans as a symbolic threat than Republicans, which stands in contrast to previous research on political affiliation and prejudice, the authors said.

They also found that the more a social media user believed their most-used platform is "fair, accurate, presents the facts, and is concerned about the public," the more likely they were to feel Chinese people posed a realistic and symbolic threat to America. The results also revealed those who use did not use social media every day had a lower chance of seeing Chinese people as a symbolic threat than those who checked Facebook every day.

"What surprised me the most [about the results] was that those who identify as liberal had higher levels of threat." Croucher told Newsweek. "We are still scratching our heads on that one. We have talked with people about that one and some have said Democrats might say they are accepting of diversity, but are they really? Others have said they might be accepting of diversity but not when their lives are in danger. So it would be really interesting to see how our political leanings shift when we see a group threatening us. Are we still as 'liberal' as we say we are when a group can threaten our way of life?"

The researchers acknowledged their paper was limited because their methods meant they could not prove that social media causes prejudice, only that there was a link between the two.

Karsten Müller, postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University's Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy and Finance who did not work on the study, told Newsweek that "sadly," he was not surprised the findings linking social media use and prejudice, as this is consistent with his own team's work on the topic.

However, the study methods mean it cannot show if social media has an effect on prejudice, as the authors "simply" asked Americans whether they use social media and whether they view Chinese people as a threat.

"It turned out that there was a correlation between the two in their sample, but that could also be because social media users differ from the general population in a myriad other ways," said Müller.