Cover story

XXVIII.6 November - December 2021
Page: 41
Digital Citation

The logics of (digital) distortion


Authors:
Safiya Noble

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One of the most notorious attacks against civil rights in California—and a litmus test for the rest of the country—was Proposition 209, a 1996 grassroots constitutional reform that organizers called the "Prohibition Against Discrimination or Preferential Treatment by State and Other Public Entities." The campaign was a continuation of attacks on affirmative action, the federal and state laws designed to repair the effects of discrimination, but it carefully and strategically used the vocabularies of movements for justice. At the time, many voters thought they were voting to protect nondiscrimination laws, not repeal them. By adding Section 31 to the California Constitution's Declaration of Rights, the state could effectively circumvent federal civil rights laws regarding remedies for long-term, systematic discrimination, banning any preferential treatment for women and people of color who were excluded from jobs and education through discriminatory laws. Experts estimated that $1 billion annually in contracts and opportunities were funneled away from minority-and women-owned businesses [1], leaving them available (again) to non-ethnic-minority- and men-owned companies. Through Prop 209, civil rights laws that were designed to create access and opportunity were closed by careful appropriation of the language of the civil rights movement, resulting in the reestablishment of control that characterized the pre—civil rights era.

Adding insult to injury, Prop 209 was introduced to the public as a "color-blind" law that would ensure race and gender were precluded from consideration in college admissions as a remedy for historical exclusion. Color-blind ideologies caused a significant cultural shift around the language of inclusion and nondiscrimination. A remedy for past (and contemporary) racism was framed by far-right conservative pundits and politicians as "racist speech." Color-blind ideology in the 1990s appealed to liberals and conservatives alike: It pejoratively sought to name those who sought accountability and remedy for systematic discrimination as "politically correct," and it assuaged liberal guilt over racism by ensuring they never needed to discuss race or racism again. By the 1990s, to even discuss the legacy of racism, and possible remedies for it, was allegedly part of the very problem of racism itself. Using the logics of color-blind ideology, well-funded right-wing organizations weaponized the language of civil rights to their benefit, effectively passing legislation and seeking to foreclose all possibility of addressing the legacies of harm in society.

The language of justice, of racial equality, and even equity were concepts being turned upside down, by design. It would be the beginning of a new post—civil rights-era backlash funded and supported by chat rooms, AM radio syndicates, and newspapers before the Internet was mainstream in the U.S. This backlash would become supercharged a decade later, first through targeted email campaigns and then through social media networks like Facebook, YouTube, 4chan, 8chan, Reddit, and Twitter.

The U.S. has a long history of grappling with repair from the harms of enslavement, occupation, and segregation manifest through policies of discrimination such as redlining, real estate covenants, segregated schools and facilities, and direct violence. Public figures, academics, journalists, and celebrities can be catalysts who coalesce exclusionary political strategies, using the language and organizing strategies of social movements for racial and economic justice. These are not strategies used exclusively by right-wing political actors—they are often embraced by liberal political projects that narrowly scope public policy interventions on past and present systems of discrimination.


The political imaginary of the U.S. struggles to find space for Black women's ideas. Nowhere is there much room for Black women's contributions to expanding notions of justice and democracy.


Just three years before Proposition 209 was passed, Lani Guinier, an accomplished law professor and former head of the voting rights project for the NAACP, was nominated by President Bill Clinton to assistant attorney general for civil rights. Guinier was a notable advocate for civil rights who faced attacks as a critical race theorist and a legal scholar whose work on minority voter enfranchisement in the post—Jim Crow era played a pivotal role in rethinking the democratic participation and broader inclusion of people systematically disenfranchised from electoral politics. Her nomination was a test case for weaponizing civil rights discourse to the peril of its advocates, and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers pressured Clinton to withdraw the nomination, which he did on June 3, 1993. Recognizing the powerful distortions of Guinier's writings about the racial politics and history of the U.S., Clinton addressed the country and acknowledged there were a "vicious series of willful distortions" [2] surrounding her work, but he capitulated to his advisors and critics who framed Guinier's work as advocacy for racial quotas. Guinier's efforts at broader racial representation in the federal judiciary and in electoral representation for Black voters was part of the legacy of expanding democracy, in the longer history of and struggle for civil rights. Framing such an expansion of rights as racist was part of an ongoing strategy to narrow democratic reforms rather than expand them. Twenty-five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Guinier was just one of many Black women addressing the history of racial harms, violence, and systematic discrimination whose work was galvanized in a backlash against civil rights.

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back to top  Civil Rights Under Algorithmic Attack

Another 25 years have passed since my early adulthood experiences of watching a series of Black women and their civil and human rights work distorted or perverted in the service of authoritarian politics. A powerful and distinct feature of the current, unrelenting rollback of rights around the world has been the scope and scale through which the distortion and weaponization of the language of civil rights has been deployed.

The political imaginary of the U.S. struggles to find space for Black women's ideas. Nowhere is there much room for Black women's contributions to expanding notions of justice and democracy, and when we do such work in academic, journalistic, and political spaces it is not without severe penalties and consequences. Black women's work is often characterized as both profoundly liberatory and simultaneously the antithesis of what America should be, because it forces an acknowledgement of the limits of the current imaginary—an imaginary that is carceral, punitive, and seeks to contain and control Black bodies. This is one key way that racism, sexism, sexual harassment, and homophobia—interlocking, intersectional power systems—coalesce to systematically stratify Black women from economic, social, and political control over our lives, from equal pay to a chance at equal life outcomes.

The Internet has been a powerful channel for distorting Black women's political work, from actively resisting voter suppression and disenfranchisement to calls to end mass incarceration, police brutality, and the carceral state to an expansion of Black women and LGBTQ++ images and representation in the media. Despite the use of social media to help elect the first African American president of the U.S., Barack Obama, Internet companies became powerful algorithmic amplifiers in a continuation of a politics of civil rights resentment and racism. Black women were among the first to recognize the deployment of bots from the Internet Research Agency on Facebook that weaponized Black culture to foment criminal acts of voter suppression [3]. What we learned through their work was the degree to which global networks of far-right political suppression of civil and human rights discourses and movements, including the work of organizers broadly coalesced under the banner of Black Lives Matter, would become normalized and indecipherable not only to the public at large but also to the Internet technology companies themselves. Even the criticism of anti-democratic and racially biased technology policy came to be the language of far-right politicians, who used that language to argue that criticism of their politics was anti-conservative bias, muddling the issues and strengthening false equivalences between struggles for civil rights and the normalization of authoritarianism.

Without any clearly stated values governing the content moderation and algorithmically amplified outcomes of their products, big tech, particularly social media and search engines, has collapsed any coherent understanding of democracy and civil rights. To manage the spread of right-wing propaganda, by the companies' own logics, would be to capitulate to arguments that they are media companies bound by a broader set of regulations than the shield of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to which they cling to eschew responsibility. By treating all content agnostically for far too long, big tech demonstrates either the companies' incompetence in distinguishing the logics of anti-civil rights politics and campaigns from the pro-democracy, pro-people, pro-environmental protection, pro-labor, pro-gender equity, and pro-civil and human rights movements underway around the world, or their willful participation in furthering anti-democratic politics that serve their own interests in the markets where they do business.

back to top  Distorted Logics and the Unraveling of Civil Rights

By 2020, social media had effectively disrupted democratic elections in most modern democracies, and had fundamentally unraveled and distorted the discourses tied to a number of movements for social justice. New pejoratives like social justice warrior and snowflake circulated in popular culture—a throwback to the "political correctness/PC" sneers of decades before. Through political surveillance and targeted campaigns facilitated by social media companies and shadow media companies like Cambridge Analytica, in Argentina, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa, India, Brazil, Ethiopia, the U.K., and eventually the U.S., authoritarian movements were woven together by technology platforms consistently involved in strategies that sow fear, anxiety, and distrust over the fundamental tenets of democracy. Deep engagement with racial and political animus is big business.

The profits are so profound from the mobilization of online harm, propaganda, and disinformation that civil rights organizations amassed "Stop Hate for Profit" (https://www.stophateforprofit.org/) campaigns to demand that corporations stop spending advertising dollars in social media companies. Despite this, NewsGuard and Comscore reported in 2021 that projected global digital advertising spends are estimated at nearly $155 billion, with $2.6 billion spent on misinformation websites that promote election misinformation, health disinformation, and other forms of propaganda [4]. Quarterly earnings for Facebook continue to grow while evidence amounts that it has played an active role in anti-democratic and anti-civil rights algorithmic organizing, including court documents after the January 6, 2021 riots in the U.S. Capitol, which cited Facebook more than any other source for information sharing and organization among the criminally charged [5]. The pretext for the "Stop the Steal" disinformation campaign continued the long history of accusing Black communities of voter fraud, stemming as far back as the post—Civil War period of Reconstruction [6].


What we know from the evidence of many digital technology implementations is that supporting democracy and civil rights are design choices that can't be disregarded by engineers.


Even when Black women engage in the work of documenting evidence that would bring about greater expansion of rights based on shared understandings of history and society, such work is met with great resistance and punishment [7]. Current attacks on critical race theory, renewed by threats against the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the Pulitzer Prize—winning 1619 Project for the New York Times, is yet another example of turning a mirror to America's history of racial discrimination, only to have its message distorted and its messenger disparaged, rather than the structures that maintain harm. Lawmakers mobilized a right-wing backlash against critical race theory and the project by threatening the withdrawal of federal funds to schools that use the 1619 Project or teach anti-racist curricula in their proposed "Saving American History Act of 2021 [S. 2035]" (https://www.blackburn.senate.gov/services/files/254B1925-6B7C-4B06-8BC6-A1F59CCB0B6C). The language of the bill argues that teaching about racism, as expected, is a racist and revisionist version of American history. The world turned upside down, once again.

back to top  Toward Repair and Restoration of Black Women's Work

The failures of technology design and distortion can have serious consequences. Training data that doesn't account for long histories of gender and racial discrimination can lead to the design of banking and credit algorithms that discriminate, as in the case of the Apple credit card that gave women a fraction of the credit their husbands were granted [8]. The use of personally identifiable information (PII) on platforms like Facebook can lead to racial discrimination in the display of employment or housing advertisements [9]. Responsibility for product implementations that cause harm, like the spread of racist propaganda or health disinformation, or even fabricated content generated by deepfakes, are issues that can often be avoided by engineers and left to policy staffers and the C-suite in tech companies to sort out before members of Congress [10]. But what we know from the evidence of many digital technology implementations is that supporting democracy and civil rights are also design choices that can't be disregarded by engineers. The advocacy of women like Ifeoma Ozema, a former Pinterest executive, has brought about tremendous shifts that free tech workers from remaining silent in the face of harmful workplaces, too [11]. Her leadership in the passage of California's "Silenced No More Act" has unburdened tech company employees who have faced racial discrimination, for example, from non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements that otherwise served as silencing mechanisms. Finding ways to speak truthfully or whistleblow is one of many important interventions upon the effects of dangerous products. White-collar women like Ozema are part of an elite group of tech employees who have experienced harm and forced a reckoning.

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Democratic ideals predicated upon the most expansive press for civil rights have been a defining feature of Black women's work for two centuries in the U.S., and the discourses of such work are readily co-opted and used in service of right-wing movements. From online bots and troll accounts that assume Black women's identities to stoke racial resentments, to liberal and conservative mobilizations against intersectional racial justice, Black women's work demands space for existence on its own terms, in its many iterations. Nowhere is there more evidence of the suppression and co-optation of our work than in the movements for justice at the intersection of technology and society. Black women are among the least invested in and least supported, and the space for our imaginaries is often limited. Our work is often depoliticized and defanged, and the resources that should flow to us to further our work is instead diverted to Johnny-come-latelies—to former tech evangelists turned tech reformers. Even when hired into positions that are allegedly available to ensure harm is not enacted against our communities through technology, the boundaries drawn around that work are tight, infamously evident in the hostile firings of Timnit Gebru and her team members from Google in 2021, when she and her collaborators drew attention to the racist and sexist harm that were evident in the company's products.

The most expansive view of democracy has been led by Black women. The words of Ida B. Wells skillfully illustrate the degree to which the distortion of our work around racial justice will not be tacitly accepted. In her campaign to end lynching Wells retorted:

It has been urged in criticism of the movement appealing to the English people for sympathy and support in our crusade against Lynch Law that our action was unpatriotic, vindictive and useless. It is not a part of the plan of this pamphlet to make any defense for that crusade nor to indict any apology for the motives which led to the presentation of the facts of American lynchings to the world at large. To those who are not willfully blind and unjustly critical, the record of more than a thousand lynchings in ten years is enough to justify any peaceable movement tending to ameliorate the conditions which led to this unprecedented slaughter of human beings.

Even in the face of thousands of documented lynchings of Black people, Wells was declared a "vindictive" threat for demanding redress of state-sanctioned extrajudicial murders, not unlike today's organizers for racial and economic justice [12].

Now is the time to resist the conscription of our work for anti-democratic politics, both in the U.S. and abroad, that seek to undermine the possibility of our very existence. Making work on racial justice illegal, as the legislation against critical race theory does, will not undo history nor should it serve as a distraction to allow for the normalization of authoritarianism. A flow of resources, space, and room for new imaginaries must be supported when so much is at stake: voter disenfranchisement; rollbacks on civil, human, and sovereign rights; devastating economic inequality; environmental collapse; increased attacks on workers' rights and quality of life; and the rise of technocratic authoritarianism continue to be among the most pressing issues affecting the world. We need new logics and imaginaries—not just new technology applications—to bring about a more just and equitable world.

back to top  References

1. Lohrentz, T. The impact of Proposition 209 on California's MWBEs. Equal Justice Society, 2015; https://equaljusticesociety.org/2015/02/24/one-billion-in-potential-contract-dollars-lost-annually-by-businesses-owned-by-women-and-people-of-color-due-to-proposition-209

2. Lauter, D. Clinton withdraws Guinier as nominee for civil rights job: Justice Department: The president says he only lately read her legal writings. He decided she stood for principles he could not support in a divisive confirmation battle. LA Times. Jun. 4, 1993; https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-06-04-mn-43290-story.html

3. Stop Online Violence Against Women. How the Facebook ads that targeted voters centered on Black American culture: Voter suppression was the end game. Stop Violence Against Women, 2018; http://stoponlinevaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Black-ID-Target-by-Russia-Report-SOVAW.pdf

4. Skibinski, S. Special report: Top brands are sending $2.6 billion to misinformation websites each year. NewsGuard; https://www.newsguardtech.com/brands-send-billions-to-misinformation-websites-newsguard-comscore-report/

5. Gilbert, B. In court documents about the pro-Trump riots at the Capitol, Facebook is cited far more than any other social network. Business Insider. Feb. 8, 2021; https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-capitol-riots-arrests-parler-instagram-youtube-2021-2

6. Bouie, J. "Stop the steal" didn't start with Trump. New York Times. Jan. 6, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/15/opinion/voter-fraud-capitol-attack.html

7. Folkenflik, D. After contentious debate, UNC grants tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones. NPR. Jun. 30, 2021; https://www.npr.org/2021/06/30/1011880598/after-contentious-debate-unc-grants-tenure-to-nikole-hannah-jones

8. Hiltzik, M. Apple gets in trouble over the "sexism" of its new Apple Card. LA Times. Nov. 11, 2019; https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-11-11/apple-sexism-apple-card

9. Venkatadri, G. et al. Privacy risks with Facebook's PII-based targeting: Auditing a data broker's advertising interface. Proc. of 2018 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (SP). IEEE, 2018, 89–107. DOI: 10.1109/SP.2018.00014

10. Holmes, A. Lawmakers hammered a Facebook VP over misinformation on its platform and loopholes in its ban on deepfakes. Business Insider. Jan. 8, 2020; https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-vp-questioned-by-lawmakers-over-misinformation-deepfakes-policy-loopholes-2020-1

11. See: https://dot.la/non-disclosure-agreement-2653736783.html

12. Rudy Giuliani: "Black lives matter" is racist, anti-American. CBS News. Jul. 10, 2016; https://www.cbsnews.com/video/rudy-giuliani-black-lives-matter-is-racist-anti-american/

back to top  Author

Safiya U. Noble is an associate professor of gender studies and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and cofounder of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry (C2i2). She is a research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, and authored Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. snoble@ucla.edu

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