Shin Koh is an ordinary Australian. Like all Australians, he has retreated indoors, safe at home from the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic as it spreads around the world. He’s watching Netflix, procrastinating on his phone and waiting for all the madness to blow over. Shin’s life is only different in one way.
He’s blamed for the coronavirus crisis.
Shin is Asian-Australian. Like many of us he has a culturally diverse family. His dad’s side of the family is from Hainan, the smallest province in China. He says people who share his heritage face prejudice and racism from people who look for someone to blame for the pandemic. He points to well publicised attacks, forced evictions and abuse, and says he feels like at any point he could be next.
“I just get weird looks at the shops all the time now, especially from the older generation,” he says.
“It feels like they want to (say something).”
Why are Australians blaming other Australians for a virus from another continent? The answer could lie in the information people are consuming while on lock down. Internet studies and social media researcher at Curtin University Crystal Abidin says in recent years, the internet has grown to a point where our screens are flooded with an oversupply of social media content. According to Dr Abidin, the role of social media influencers is to direct our eyes to certain content and avert them from other posts.
This is especially relevant right now as we all find ourselves with almost nothing to do except surf the internet on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
But aren’t influencers just those teenagers taking selfies in their bedrooms, trying to sell face cream and active wear? Well apparently not. Dr Abidin says most people don’t have a full understanding of just how many influencers are out there, and how many shapes and sizes they come in. She says some influencers are known more for their content than their face.
“They may be anonymous or faceless influencers,” she says.
“In the very early days these would be the folks who were running viral blogs, they were the people curating forums or communities, now it could be an assumed-anonymous tweeter or someone who is a regular commenter on YouTube videos in a network, or human bots co-ordinating inauthentic action.”
These non-conventional influencers might not make any money from their posts, but that’s not the point. Dr Abidin emphasises their goal is to direct the viewer to a controversial opinion, or even incorrect data about a topic. She says they might be motivated by spreading misinformation and “fake news”. She says this is something people need to be wary of when they read about COVID-19 online, because non-conventional influencers are some of the online players who promote anti-Asian racism.
But it’s not all bad news. Dr Abidin says Chinese Australian influencers like Jamie Zhu are responding in their own way and becoming spokespeople for their culture. She says Mr Zhu has a mixed European and Chinese background, and was raised in Australia where he still lives today.
People like Mr Zhu are professional influencers, but Dr Abidin says profit isn’t driving their advocacy. She says they use their content to get people interested in public health, as well as life as a Chinese Australian.
“Whether or not they have planned to, they have become sort of ambassadors of both cultures,” she says.
“In light of the anti-Asian racism with COVID-19, they have taken upon themselves to be the mouthpiece, to talk about public service announcement-like discussions about how we should be treating each other, whether (or not) you should stay at home, not to panic buy.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 1.2 million Australians have Chinese ancestry. Victorian President of the Australia-China Friendship Society (ACFS) Anthony Leong says these Australians have a deep connection to their heritage.
“Chinese philosophy is such that we have a very very strong pull to our motherland,” he says.
“It’s something that is more than a plot of dirt, or somewhere you can put a pin in a map, because it holds within it our cultural heritage.”
Mr Leong says racists who usually keep to themselves are expressing their prejudices publicly because of their feelings about the coronavirus crisis. He has experienced this as a Chinese Australian, when emboldened strangers tell him to “wear a mask and go back to where he was born”. Which just happens to be the Melbourne suburb of Richmond.
He says through his work with ACFS he wants to break down bigotry and cultural barriers to create stronger relationships between Chinese Australians and the rest of the community.
“We’re not political … what we’re about is promoting exchanges and promoting ideas, and an exchange of ideas,” he says.
“For those of us who are blaming China, or Chinese Australians, the answer is you really don’t know what you’re talking about … For too long we have copped the idea of it’s OK to dog whistle.”
Mr Leong says the rise of social media plays a major role in changing this for young people in China and Australia, because they can share content about each other’s culture with the world. High profile influencers like Jamie Zhu are a good examples of this cultural exchange.
The battle against COVID-19 has just started. The economic and health consequences of the pandemic have been well reported and are likely to put an enormous strain on society. If we want to stay unified in the face of these challenges, Shin says positive messages in the community are a good start.
“I think it’s good, it’s all about perspective. I think it would help people understand we’re all in this together.”