When I started seriously organizing to defend the internet in 2009, my efforts were motivated by the great promise that an open internet without corporate gatekeepers would eventually level the playing field for all talk. My hope was further inspired by the role of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook played to help and give an international voice to the Arab Spring movement. A few years later, Occupy Wall Street too used social media as a way to bypass exclusive, elitist mainstream media to amplify stories of economic inequity, brandishing the phrase “We are the 99%”. Then, in 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag appeared on Twitter, giving a national and international voice to a growing movement for black lives and against systemic and uncontrolled police violence.
By enabling ordinary people to share ideas, lobby targets directly, and catalyze and coordinate broader social movements across geographies, social media has played an important role in the defense of human rights. . But, as I quickly learned, without adequate mechanisms to protect the speech of those who have been historically discriminated against and excluded by all vehicles of the modern voice – from schools and universities to the polls, to media publishers and to platforms – the market for ideas ends up just like the current market, rigged to protect the speech of those already in power.
For example, the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections were flooded with misinformation was explicitly aimed at limiting the voting rights and political power of black and Latino voters. the different levels of police aggression against the seditious mob that recently attacked the Capitol against the largely peaceful anti-racist protesters in nearly every American city demonstrates a racialized double standard in freedom of assembly. Black communities don’t like a free and fair press is: Eighty-three percent of editorial staff are white. Racial disparities in media editing have Internet as a unique alternative to black voices. But when the internet is riddled with racism, black speech becomes a canary in a digital coal mine.
Meanwhile, white supremacists of all kinds have historically enjoyed unhindered access to the means and mechanisms of speech. This is as true in the digital age as ever. A 2017 Pew study found that one in four black Americans have been threatened or harassed online because of their race or ethnicity. With black and native women killed in America more than in any other race, the confluence of digital and real racial and gender-based violence in the world is undeniable, at least for those who experience it firsthand.
As an early member of the Black Lives Matter Global Network in the Bay Area, I was among the leaders responsible for running several BLM Facebook Pages, and witnessed the inequity firsthand. I spent hours every day from 2014 to 2017 eradicating violent racial and sexist harassment, explicitly racist anti-black language, and even threats to maim and murder black activists. At that time, it was extremely difficult to delete these messages. There was no feedback mechanism outside of the users reporting the messages themselves. And if the content management system, algorithmic or human, didn’t agree with your interpretation, the message remained. As a result, black activists like me who ran Facebook pages had only one option: go through each comment to remove the thousands of people who threatened black people, to personal detriment.
In the digital age where great mobilization is happening online, the constant pace of racist harassment and threats, doxxing and ridicule, is reminiscent of the early days of civil rights organizing. My body remains intact, but my mind is marked.
In this context, an absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment – that all speech is equal, that the Internet is a sufficiently democratizing force, and that the cure for harmful speech is more speech – willfully and cruelly ignores that not all speech is treated in the same way. A digital divide and algorithmic injustice have fractured the internet and, with the racial exclusion of mainstream media, turned the cure for more talk into a bogus solution. Ultimately, it hurts black communities, leaders, organizations and movements. In the digital age, we need to deploy real mechanisms that protect the First Amendment rights of blacks and Maroons.