“Be Careful”: WhatsApp Forwards Spread Fear and Misinformation

Messages intended to increase awareness of potential COVID transmission among South Asian Americans, but the impact has been more alarming.

Snigdha Sur

May 6, 2021

“Be Careful”: WhatsApp Forwards Spread Fear and Misinformation

Soon after the first murmurs of the coronavirus reaching the U.S. began in early 2020, another phenomenon emerged across the country: Chinese restaurants were vandalized, Chinatowns emptied, and Chinese American businesses saw revenues drop 50-70%, far before lockdowns started. Months later, the impact of calling the coronavirus the “Kung flu virus” or the “China virus” is evident not just in the loss of livelihoods but also in the rise of hate crimes and loss of life. In March, lethal Atlanta shootings killed eight, six of whom were Asian women. Just a few days ago, an assailant attacked two Asian women in Times Square with a hammer, and a man stabbed two Asian women in San Francisco. 

History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In light of the recent record-breaking surge in India’s coronavirus cases and deaths, partly driven by a “double mutant” coronavirus variant, the South Asian diaspora is facing a similar tenor of discrimination. Australia banned travelers from India, including Australian citizens, until May 15, a move that sparked outrage for being “racist.” From New Jersey to California, anonymous citizens are circulating WhatsApp forwards warning the community to “be careful” and “steer clear of those traveling from India.” One message, in light of a couple who had visited India and returned to Edison, New Jersey, read: “Edison or New Jersey shouldn’t become another India with deadly fast spreading COVID-19 double mutant variant virus.” Though these messages, often from within the South Asian American community, aim to warn each other to brace for the worst, they are also helping spread misinformation. And with misinformation comes unintended consequences.