Black Lives & the Futility of Online Activism

How digital spaces reinforce racial inequality

source: @museumsvictoria, via Unsplash

“If we do not know how to meaningfully talk about racism, our actions will move in misleading directions.”

Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle

“Networks do not eradicate power: they distribute it in different ways, shuffling hierarchies and producing new mechanisms of exclusion.”

Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform

In the US and around the world, the movement for Black lives, reignited by the murder of George Floyd, has inspired millions to sound the alarm on racial and systemic inequality. Some are fighting for Black lives through on-the-ground community organizing, others by way of donations, and others through advocacy — but because of the pandemic and thanks to the ubiquitousness of social media, most of the conversations (or at least “awareness building”) have overwhelmingly been happening online, though at this point, the awareness raising has simmered to all but a whisper.

Nonetheless, the Black Lives Movement, reminiscent of movements preceding it, has given us one of the most searing examples of performative activism amidst the pandemic. The movement has mutated into another form of self-flagellation where droves of people are seeking digital atonement for their ultimate sin: privilege.

To preface (because people are so quick to cry ‘racist!’), my criticism isn’t aimed towards people on-the-ground advocating for racial justice and systemic change; my critique is directed towards the self-righteous progressives seeking digital repentance for their transgressions of being privileged — this includes the countless companies, organizations, and influencers who only see the movement with dollar signs in their eyes.

Woke Content Inspo on the Cosmic Digital Highway

As far as individual responses go, the thousands of BLM posts that popped up online may as well have been taken by the same Wokeness 101 for White People playbook — over-simplified mantras and patronizing hashtags about #listening and #education were regurgitated en masse across digital walls.

Progressives who engage in these token awareness campaigns are the same ones that resort to doling out empty neologisms like “Do better” and “Educate yourself” to terminate wrongthink — and shame anyone for offering thoughtful critiques. These refrains do nothing to advance the conversation or create a space for meaningful dialogue, when really, honest and open dialogue is what we need — especially in this new epoch of social unrest.

Meanwhile, companies took the angle of blacking out their posts in solidarity, while some also announced initiatives supporting racial equity, despite continuing to profit off of the backs of marginalized factory workers (the hypocrisy of Nike advocating against oppression and injustice warrants its own separate critique).

One-Sided Interviews Don’t Qualify as “Uncomfortable Conversations”

There have been occasional attempts at fostering open and honest dialogue. The YouTube series, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, attempted to do just this, though it fell flat. In the web series, the conversations played out more like scripted interviews, in which likeminded guests, ranging from Hollywood actors to reality TV stars, ask the Black host a series of questions, resulting in watered-down one-sided dialogue. The web series appeals to palatability at the expense of authenticity — from the rehearsed lines down to the soft, and at times, distracting, background music. I suspect the conversations would play out very differently if the guests were ordinary people like you and I — people with different backgrounds, ideologies, and opinions who have no script to use as a crutch. We talk ad nauseam about diversity, but in our quest for inclusion, we end up excluding the very people who need to have these conversations. Additionally, only five episodes into the web series, the host, a former professional football player, announced a book deal, sealed with Oprah’s stamp of approval to boot, further cementing the profitability of this trending movement.

Other content creators jumped on the racial justice bandwagon by reciting the same lines about raising awareness and “elevating” Black voices on their channel. Some creators, whose entire channels revolve around endless material consumption (i.e. clothing hauls) to sustain viewership, posted a video or two reviewing products purchased from Black-owned businesses. Others asked their viewers to send them lists of Black-owned businesses and Black content creators (as if they couldn’t be bothered to look them up on their own), so they could either a) give them a shout-out, or b) link to their channel/business in the video description box. Some YouTubers announced they wouldn’t post content for a week, as a way to give space to Black voices.

While some creators have good intentions, these calculated maneuvers are nothing but feeble attempts at sincerely addressing the concerns of Black creators. It is just content inspiration for woke influencers, and consequently Black people are treated like charity cases as a way to increase viewership for content creators who “elevate” their voices for them.

All of the above are simply fleeting gestures — until the social justice trend moves in a different direction. And already, the tide is turning.

Outside of these woke circles, there is a separate camp of people who refuse to engage in virtue signalling altogether. While they support Black lives, they are demonized for perpetuating inequality by not saying anything at all: “Silence is violence,” the woke progressives retort. This vacuous proclamation does nothing more than induce guilt in non-marginalized communities, as if posting a hashtag about justice does anything but serve the person posting it.

Woke progressives may be successful in performative activism, but in the long run, these methods are ineffective at bridging divides — digi-activists churn out palatable, vanilla content to appease the lowest common denominator audience and boost their viewership and profits. In doing so, their tactics often comprise of shaming, blaming, and virtue signalling. These acts of digital activism, with their increasing frequency, have been more effective at inhibiting tangible change, rather than nurturing it.

Digital Spaces: Mirroring Systemic Inequalities

But the responsibility doesn’t fall squarely on content creators and other online activists, it should also be directed towards the digital mediums in which “activism” (I use this term loosely) is taking place. The Black Lives Movement exposed a growing threat and disturbing truth: the inherent unequal structure of social media platforms.

The architects of the Web directly shape the online world, including social media. Power isn’t eradicated online, it has simply shifted, and prejudices are now covertly hidden in the algorithms. Much like real world structural inequalities, the algorithms remain invisible to us, yet they shape all that we do and see, thanks to the programmers shaping them. Digi-activists spend so much time blaming each other for not elevating Black voices, but there is little users can do to equalize these spaces, as it is the algorithms that sway viewers in certain directions. Social media companies like Twitter may boast about something as simple as changing their programming language to be more inclusive, but this does nothing to change the inherently discriminatory algorithms.

ProPublica is frequently on the frontline exposing algorithmic discriminatory practices. One ProPublica report revealed that Facebook allowed companies including Amazon, Verizon, and Goldman Sachs, to target advertisements for jobs, housing, and credit by excluding certain groups, based on ethnicity, age, and gender. The discrimination extends far beyond what ad shows up on your Facebook feed. It’s about being “guilty by association” — by grouping you in with users who have similar interests, you can ascertain someone’s age, ethnicity, sex, and other personal information.

The algorithms decide how easy it is to get a mortgage; they try and predict (though they have shown to fail) recidivism rates; they disproportionately target minorities; the algorithms are also better adapted to recognize white faces than Black ones, creating false identification issues. All of the above are examples of weblining, in which poor, marginalized communities are negatively targeted online, based on criteria that they are not aware of. The digital divide is growing, with the haves and the have nots being pitted against each other by techno-leaders under surreptitious means.

Putting the Spotlight on Big Tech

If we really want to know why a certain Black content creator isn’t showing up in our feed, or why the poor, rural Black person got denied a loan, or why fast food ads appear more for marginalized groups — we need to look at who is controlling these technologies. These technologies are not politically neutral, and changing something like coding language is just lip service in lieu of actually leveling digital spaces.

The Internet is not the revolutionary or liberating medium it was promised to be — it has been transformed into a corporatized space, where speech is regulated, not according to nation states, but by Big Tech. Marginalized voices are at a disadvantage, being discriminated at all levels, yet in the same vein, woke progressives use these spaces to raise the voices of Black people, but it’s an upward battle when the algorithms propping up these digital spaces are inherently biased. This is why greater steps need to be taken towards on-the-ground organizing, instead of relying primarily on digital activism, towards combating racial inequality. In the meantime, we must hold these tech companies accountable for their covert and biased algorithms.

It’s important to consider the ways in which these spaces influence what we see (and don’t see) online. While there is value in digital activism, we must be cognizant of the ways these technologies control and divide, instead of bridging centuries of oppression and injustice.

Originally published at https://growingupalienated.com on August 11, 2020.

I write independent commentary. Find me at www.growingupalienated.com | Sign up for more exclusive content: http://eepurl.com/hbXpf1

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