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‘The Social Dilemma’ Fails To Address Racism In Tech And Surveillance Capitalism

‘The Social Dilemma’ Fails To Address Racism In Tech And Surveillance Capitalism

The Social Dilemma does a deep disservice to the complexities of racism and technology by ignoring the depth of issues that arise when examining the role big tech plays in the marginalization of BIPOC.

By Manaal Farooqi

This year, Netflix released The Social Dilemma, a documentary exploring the numerous negative effects of social media and how dangerous it can be. The documentary confronts the dangers of data mining and surveillance capitalism, as well as the problems that many algorithms pose to mental health, political discourse and democracy. However, The Social Dilemma neglects a very integral part of the puzzle: race. Who creates these technologies, with what intentions, and how they are used against and affect the most  vulnerable in society matters.

While the issues caused by social media’s data mining and social surveillance affect everyone, it’s marginalized people who suffer the worst consequences of this technology. 

Recently, a popular Muslim prayer application that has been downloaded an upwards of 98 million times has been linked to data collection by the US military. The app sells location data of countless Muslims to the US military, which in turn uses this data to target drone strikes, ongoing surveillance of communities and to inform its military operations in Muslim majority countries. This has caused tangible harm to Muslims, both in the US and abroad, who have had these big tech companies selling their data to the highest bidder, regardless of what the bidders’ intentions are. 

This same phenomenon occurred during the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in 2020, with Amazon forging an agreement allowing law enforcement access to Ring doorbell cameras, drones and other surveillance technologies. According to the database, the Atlas of Surveillance, over 1000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S have access to the data collected by Amazon as a part of a special access agreement. Amazon  made public statements in support of Black Lives Matter as hollow PR campaigns, even as they continue to be an integral part of the very same institutions that cause Black lives actual harm. 

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But it’s not just the police who take advantage of technology to terrorize Black people. With the prominent rise of groups such as the Proud Boys or the Three Percenters, civilian white supremacist groups like these have been able to organize en masse with the aid of social media. Even after Facebook banned the Proud Boys in 2018, due mostly to the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, many groups still defended them on the platform and, today, continue to post similar content. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have a long documented history of not regulating hate based groups, in fact. Many have long attempted to warn Facebook about the dangers of these groups and their posts. This year, Facebook users issued 445 warnings to the platform that a militia group in Wisconsin was actively calling their members to “arm themselves” against protestors in a Kenosha protest. These warnings were ignored and ultimately led to the fatal shooting of two people by Kyle Rittenhouse, a white supremacist radicalized by this group. Even several hours after the shooting, the page calling for arms remained active and visible through Facebook’s platform. 

This isn’t the first time Facebook has refused to acknowledge their part as a vehicle and tool for hate groups. Even in the midst of this year’s historic Black Lives Matter protests, several civil rights groups including the NAACP, called for advertisers to pull from Facebook after inflammatory posts by Donald Trump suggested that looters may be shot amidst the unrest following George Floyd’s muder at the hands of police. In response, Zuckerberg said, “We’re not gonna change our policies or approach anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue… My guess is that all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough.” 

In the wake of multiple murders of Black Americans, with massive nationwide protests demanding justice for Black lives and an end to police brutality, Facebook and its leader continue to be apathetic and smug about its role in this continued violence. They don’t care because they have a clear monopoly on the market and know that advertisers would eventually have to come back—and Zuckerburg is unfortunately not alone in this thinking.  

An additional contributing factor stems from within these large tech giants- the very people making decisions on policy, algorithms, and programming are largely white. Employees of colour across the board in the tech space have reported dealing with racism, with issues coming from major tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and so many more that have been called out by former and current employees of colour for racism and gaslighting. According to a report by Wired, between the years 2014 and 2019, big tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook made little headway in terms of actively recruiting more BIPOC. At Google and Microsoft, their teams of Black and/or Native technical workers rose by less than a percent from 2014 to 2019. Apple, on the other hand, failed to make any changes at all, with its share of technical workers who identify as Black remaining at just 6% for those 5 years. 

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The Social Dilemma does a deep disservice to the complexities of racism and technology by ignoring the depth of issues that arise when examining the role big tech plays in the marginalization of Black, Indigenous and people of colour. While for the creators of the documentary, social media poses a possible existential threat in the near future; for marginalized communities, this is already a reality. Tristan Harris, one of the main interviewees, says about the COVID-19 pandemic, We have no idea what’s true, but now it’s a matter of life and death.” But this has clearly been the case for members of the Black community for many years now. These technological advances have only allowed for the very same institutions that policed and surveil them to be equipped with much more powerful tools controlled by the corporations that have imbedded themselves into our daily lives.

Without diversification of and racial justice within the tech sector, let alone in the commentary on the sector, we will never have true protection from the dangers that social media can pose.  We can’t expect the very people who have caused the problem to fix it for anyone else but themselves. It is crucial to have Black, Indigenous and other marginalized identities at the forefront of the conversation and the solution- which The Social Dilemma fails to do. The only way forward through the very real issues caused by social media and big tech today is for everyone, from critics and researchers to  industry leaders alike, is to bring in those most affected by these very technologies and not only offer them a seat at the table, but to make space for  them to lead. Anything less will undoubtedly create a band aid solution, leaving marginalized communities in the lurch yet again. 

Manaal Farooqi is passionate about equity and innovation in her work. She writes primarily on issues pertaining to violence against women, Islamophobia, racial justice, and contemporary culture.

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