Social media companies have also enhanced the technological prowess of the white supremacist carceral state in targeting Black, Brown, Indigenous and working class communities through ostensibly “colorblind” tech.
CW: References to Police and Governmental Violence
By Omar Zahzah
If there ever was a point at which Big Tech’s supposed democratization of social relations and communications was taken seriously, little has done more damage to this Utopianist corporate branding than the actions of these companies themselves. Silicon Valley tech companies developed their capabilities and honed their power largely under the auspices of the Obama administration—which, for all of the former president’s campaigning on “change,” actually expanded the governmental surveillance apparatus of the Bush era. Federal law enforcement agencies have been relying on the services of private companies that track social media activity for the purposes of mass political surveillance in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
With social media surveillance becoming such an entrenched part of policing and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) activity, it’s difficult to believe that Congressional concerns about social media regulation will amount to much more than political theater. Meanwhile, concurrent to cementing a powerful working relationship between US governmental agencies that includes discriminatory political surveillance and profiling, social media companies have been practicing data profiling and psychological behavioral modification techniques for the purpose of totally dominating user attention for maximal profit, known as surveillance capitalism. They have also enhanced the technological prowess of the white supremacist carceral state in targeting Black, Brown, Indigenous and working class communities through ostensibly “colorblind” mechanisms such as tech. Scholar Ruha Benjamin has categorized the latter phenomenon as The New Jim Code.
Social media companies sell a brand of freedom and democratization as a cynical ploy to shore up their own profits and maintain the integrity of white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, and target radical opposition to the status quo. The novelty of the instruments does not entail a novelty of the paradigm—racial capitalism remains dominant, and neoliberal platitudes are offered up as consolation as Silicon Valley tech giants willingly—and profitably—continue to bolster sites and projects of political repression the world over. And while liberals seek to expand social media censorship, these practices only hurt global freedom struggles.
On May 6th and 7th of this year, Instagram users in India noticed that their posts and private chats critiquing the Modi government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic were disappearing, as reported by Rishika Pardikar. Instagram claimed that early May deletions were due to a “global technical issue” that had been “fixed,” but Pardikar notes that, in addition to India never being mentioned by Instagram, the tech company’s censorship actually increased to impact uprisings in Colombia against police brutality and proposed tax increases as well as the ongoing opposition to the Israeli state’s plan to ethnically cleanse Palestinian families from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Last October, activists in Nigeria used online platforms to call for the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS,) a police division infamous for extreme violence. The government swiftly cracked down, with security forces opening fire on protestors on October 20th, killing 12. In November, the Nigerian government began pushing for the official censorship of social media platforms through regulations ostensibly aimed at preventing the spread of “fake news.”
It might seem plausible to assume that this is simply a problem of governmental repression. But as shown by their collusion with US governmental and police agencies, Silicon Valley tech companies have little problem aiding, enabling or, at the very least, sanctioning political repression on their watch. Rashida Pardikar cites Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF,) as saying that “Silicon Valley platforms have a very natural interest in keeping governments happy in the regions that they operate.” It’s not liberation or freedom that dictates these companies’ motives, but power, profit, and influence.
In another especially egregious confirmation of tech companies’ anti-liberatory ethos, Zoom, (the online web-conferencing platform that has come to monopolize educational spaces since the pandemic,) YouTube and Facebook banded together in November 2020 to censor an open classroom organized by Drs. Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa. Co-hosted by the Arab, Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies Program and the Women and Gender Studies (WGS) Department at San Francisco State University, the virtual classroom featured Palestinian liberation icon Leila Khaled and former ANC military leader Ronnie Kasrils. The event, “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, and Resistance,” was intended to be a round-table discussion on the interconnectedness of liberation struggles across the world as well as a rumination on the inextricability of feminist praxis from decolonization. But caving in to pressure from Zionist organizations and an Israeli-government aligned app opposing Khaled’s presence, Zoom blocked the class from taking place on its platform. Facebook and YouTube followed suit by shutting down the stream of the event. In April 2021, when the AMED studies department partnered with the Council of UC Faculty Associations and UC Humanities Research Institute and UC Merced Professor Sean Malloy to re-stage the event, Zoom, YouTube and Facebook again blocked the open classroom and Eventbrite deleted any advertisements for it.
Shortly before this, Facebook also escalated its suppression of the AMED studies program by completely deleting its page, preventing an accredited academic program from continuing to reach students, community organizers and activists free of charge with educational materials about the Palestinian struggle as well as destroying countless digital archives of talks and events about Palestine’s role in what founding director Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi refers to as “the indivisibility of justice.” The Facebook page remains unrestored, and the tech giant has since confirmed that the deletion was indeed intentional as the material “goes against [their] community standards.”
It’s not hard to imagine what the “community standards” of an organization that proudly bans anti-fascist and anarchist groups from its platforms are—they are right in line with the neoliberal white supremacy of the Biden administration, which has recently revealed it would treat anti-capitalists as potential “domestic terrorists.” Far from a “technical issue,” the widespread censorship of activist postings by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (owned by Facebook) as well as the deletion of the AMED studies page is directly in line with Silicon Valley Tech Companies’ practice of aligning themselves with globally repressive forces.
Omar Zahzah is a writer, poet, independent scholar, and organizer. Omar is the Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the US Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (USACBI.) Omar holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Los Angeles (UCLA.)
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