'Respond2Racism': San Francisco group creates bot to fight online racism toward Asians

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Discrimination toward Asian Americans has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic. It's an issue I've covered extensively and have personally experienced in real life, and especially, online.

A new online tool, launched at the end of May aims to not only track these incidents but to educate and empower others to speak up.

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Over the past several months, I've reported on numerous incidents where Asians were targeted verbally or physically because of the false belief Chinese people spread the virus.

The anti-Asian sentiment took off when the President of the United States and others began regularly using the term "Chinese Virus" when talking about COVID-19. A now viral video from April shows an enraged woman, spitting and hurling slurs at an Asian woman walking her dog along the Great Highway in San Francisco, demanding she "stay in Asia" for "spreading the virus."

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Nearly 2,000 similar incidents have been reported through the Stop API Hate reporting center which launched in San Francisco at the start of the pandemic. When San Francisco resident Maria Lee's brother and then mother experienced it firsthand, she knew something had to be done.

"It was the beginning of April...I was shocked to learn both my mom and brother were targeted on several occasions. Both times it happened in their own neighborhood while shopping at a grocery store and once while taking a walk at a park like this," says Maria while walking through Lafayette Park. She says it was heartbreaking to hear what happened to her mother and her brother, who is a healthcare worker and often spends 28-hour shifts treating COVID-19 patients.

Maria, along with Along with partners Billy Liao, Shan Jin, Alex Petosa, Darien Ahn, Stephanie Bousquet, Tena Goy, and Crystal Chan from the Chinatown-based ad-agency where she works started an initiative called Respond2Racism. Using artificial intelligence, the Respond2Racism bot identifies hateful and racist hashtags such as #chinesevirus and #chinavirus and others, and it automatically sends a message to the user to educate on why this language is wrong.

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The program also sends video messages from Asian Americans to users who may not even know the terminology they're using is wrong.

"It forces the audience to look eye-to-eye with the person that may be impacted by your words," says Maria.

The Respond2Racism bot also serves another purpose: to be an ally in helping others with resources on how to respond when they see discriminatory speech or terminology. The bot also seeks out those who are promoting diversity and understanding and sends users a "thank you" to encourage their efforts fighting the virus of hate.

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"With the whole quarantine, it's easy to feel paralyzed. By taking this initiative it makes us feel like there is an action. We can take action, even while we're quarantined," says Maria.

The response to the bot's messaging and education has been mixed. While some who are so set in their ways have pushed back against reason, Maria says much of the response has been helpful for users who didn't realize they were using offensive terminology.

"This is a small step. We have so much more to do in this fight against hate and racism. I hope this inspires everyone else to respond to racism in their own creative way."

Respond2Racism hopes to one day be a platform inclusive of all backgrounds. but they're facing some hurdles. Since Twitter often flags bots that are used for spam or to spread hate, they're limited on how many tweets they can respond to per hour and per day. Because hashtags are forever changing, they also need more resources to keep up.

You can learn more about Respond2Racism at their website https://respond2racism.com/,on Twitter and on Facebook.

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