Back in April, COVID-19-related racism hit Maria Lee’s family. Both her mom and her brother were targeted, outside a grocery store and on a walk in the park. The Korean-Canadian associate creative director at San Francisco-based ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners was shocked.
“After I saw them both shaken to the core, my heart just sank,” says Lee. “Then, honestly, anger got stirred up. Especially when my brother, a physician working up to 28 hours a shift to treat COVID-19 patients, was verbally attacked with all kinds of racial slurs. And words cut deep.”
She’s far from alone.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, Asians around the world and across America have been targeted with blame-related racism, with President Trump’s early insistence on calling it a Chinese virus far from helpful. Hate speech against China on Twitter was up 900%, and reports of verbal and physical attacks on Asians began spiking around the country, as well as misguided boycotts on Asian businesses.
“It was clear that the coronavirus isn’t the only thing that’s threatening our lives right now, but also fear and anxiety-fueled racism against Asians,” says Lee. “I thought to myself, ‘How did we become the face of this vicious disease? Why are we getting spat on, humiliated, and demonized in public? Why is no one stepping in to help when they witness harassment? Is this merely a bystander effect, or is there something bigger at play?'”
Lee met with a small group of Asian and non-Asian colleagues as part of the ad agency’s GS&P Voices, an internal group that promotes diversity and inclusion, to talk about their own experiences and how they could tackle this issue head-on.
Now they’re launching a new Respond2Racism campaign that includes a Twitter bot that automatically responds to racist Twitter trolls. The First Responder Twitter Bot responds to COVID-19-inspired racist tweets with videos that aim both to educate the perpetrators and uplift Asian front-line workers. It also responds to those tweeting in support of Asians, with tips on how to be first responders to racism when you witness it in person.
Billy Liao, a Chinese art director at Goodby, says using selfie videos from front-line workers introducing themselves and describing how they serve the community drives empathy by calling out how perpetrators’ use of words personally affects them. “We had to keep reminding ourselves that there are folks who use these hashtags out of ignorance unintentionally,” says Liao. “We were careful not to use accusatory language.”
Lee says it’s this personal approach that makes the Respond2Racism bot feel different and more effective than your average bot. “There’s something powerful about these selfie-style videos, because they feel intimate,” says Lee. “They force you to meet eye to eye with the person who may be impacted by your words.”