Facebook has profited from running racist “kung flu” advertising


Update (7/2/20): Following publication of this report, Facebook appears to have enforced its policy against “discriminatory practices” by prohibiting “kung flu" advertising in some cases. Several of the ads that were documented in this piece now have the following notice on them: “This ad was taken down because it goes against Facebook Advertising Policies.” Some other ads currently do not carry that note but are inactive.

Facebook has claimed that advertising on its platform “must not discriminate or encourage discrimination against people based on personal attributes such as race, ethnicity, color, [or] national origin.” However, the social media giant has run advertising for companies touting the racist phrase “kung flu” during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump, who has a long history of racism and bigotry, has repeatedly used the phrase “kung flu” when discussing the novel coronavirus. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has defended Trump’s racist use of the phrase by claiming it's a criticism of China. 

NBC News’ Kimmy Yam reported for NBC Asian America that “experts, however, said that besides being offensive to both groups, the excuse doesn't hold up because Asians and Asian Americans are often viewed as a monolith because of implicit bias, the history of the racial group in the U.S. and the current political climate.” She added: 

Andy Kang, executive director of the civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, told NBC News that given the political and racial environment of the U.S., Trump's words could have harmful consequences.

"We're currently in the middle of a global pandemic that has caused a tremendous amount of suffering, both in economic terms and, more importantly, lives lost. On top of that, it's a presidential election year," he said. "With such an emotionally charged political atmosphere, it's irresponsible and reckless for our political leaders and candidates for our nation's highest office to engage in rhetoric that incites xenophobic scapegoating and violence."

Kang said the history of Asian Americans in the U.S. is dotted with evidence showing that such rhetoric has laid the groundwork for violence and shameful policies.

Asians have already been the target of numerous hate crimes during the pandemic. Outlets such as Fox News have also covered the coronavirus outbreak by pushing anti-Asian and anti-immigrant bigotry. 

Facebook’s advertising policy regarding “prohibited content” and “discriminatory practices” states: “Ads must not discriminate or encourage discrimination against people based on personal attributes such as race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, disability, medical or genetic condition.”

Media Matters searched Facebook’s Ad Library and found that the company accepted ads which feature the phrase “kung flu.” 

Facebook is currently running an advertisement for conservative clothing company Capitol Tee that features a stock photo of someone wearing a “kung flu” shirt. Accompanying advertising text states: “The Mainstream Media are a bunch of snowflakes. Buy this shirt and make their heads explode.” Capitol Tee and Facebook previously ran a now-inactive ad for the shirt with the racist caption: “Tired of the Wuhan Flu?” Those ads ran on Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by the company. 

Facebook also ran ads for the clothing company American AF in April which featured a shirt with a picture of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence with the caption “The Kung Flu Kid.” (American AF has over 1.3 million Facebook followers and over 550,000 Instagram followers.) Additionally, Facebook ran an American AF ad in March featuring a modified video of Trump, as “the Kung Flu Kid,” fighting the coronavirus, which is labeled with a Chinese flag. Both of those ads ran on Facebook and Instagram. 

On June 7, Facebook briefly ran an advertisement from a “fan page” for Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin featuring the Trump and Pence “The Kung Flu Kid” shirt. A Facebook notice on the ad now states that: “This ad ran without a disclaimer. After the ad started running, we determined that the ad was about social issues, elections or politics and required the label. The ad was taken down.” The ad ran on Facebook and Messenger. 

Despite its policy, Facebook has frequently run discriminatory advertising over the years. In recent days, a growing number of companies have said that they are suspending their advertising on Facebook because of the company’s failure to prevent hate from spreading on its platforms.