While efforts to wrangle the COVID-19 outbreak continue worldwide, the World Health Organization is contending with another type of viral spread in the form of conservative American politicians stigmatizing Chinese people for political gain. Despite the fact that pandemics can start anywhere and — by definition — spread beyond geopolitical boundaries, these politicians have stood by their use of terms like “Wuhan virus” and “foreign virus,” ignoring examples of Asians being verbally and physically assaulted due to being linked with the new coronavirus.
In a Twitter thread on February 11, 2020, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the 2019 novel strain of the coronavirus had an official name: COVID-19. The naming decision came at a time when terms such as “Chinese coronavirus,” “Wuhan Coronavirus,” “China Virus,” and “Wuhan Virus” were being used interchangeably with several other ambiguous terms. Tedros and WHO have made it clear that the name choice was designed to avoid stigmatizing the population living near COVID-19’s point of origin, part of their broader effort to fight the spread of incorrect or misleading information about the outbreak, which WHO has referred to as an infodemic. “The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization,” WHO’s official Twitter account wrote on March 2 in a tweet that has received over 1,000 retweets and more than 2,000 likes.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) has operationalized the study of disinformation by exposing falsehoods and fake news, documenting human rights abuses, and building digital resilience worldwide.