Can the internet ever really be anti-racist?

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the world, our TLs have exploded with resources, reading lists and calls for change. But can that change happen if the very history of the web is embedded in discrimination?

by Parisa Hashempour
21 August 2020, 1:24pm

It’s 1994 and you’re surfing one of the first internet chat rooms. You hammer a message into your chunky beige keyboard and off it goes, disappearing into the ether. The chances are, it’s going to land in front of one of three kinds of people -- countercultural computer geeks, military men or wealthy corporate types with coveted access to a boxy home computer.

Think of the entire internet in the early 90s as a giant Omegle -- but with slightly less sex. It was brand pixelating new and reserved mostly for the wealthy and elite. Few people had access, even fewer had email addresses. There were no colours, images or sounds. Software was expensive and you even had to pay to send emails. Despite this (or more likely, because of this) real-life racism soon found a home online.

It was around this time that Dr Lisa Nakamura, internet expert and professor at the University of Michigan, began using chat rooms and talking to other Asian women online. When she discovered her new digital pals were actually white men living out secret race fantasies, she swiftly identified the phenomenon of “identity tourism in cyberspace”. Seemingly, anyone could go online and experience life as a minority. In spite of the problematic overtones, early internet users were optimistic about this trend. It might mean, they theorised, that when people on the internet escaped the limitations imposed on them via race and gender, this newfound equality could overspill into reality.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that. As Dr Nakamura puts it today: “Getting on Twitter and finding a swastika is as easy as going outside and breathing air. They do not moderate any of the platforms very well.” And is it any wonder that internet platforms are a breeding ground for white, male supremacy when they’re the product of white, male Silicon Valley? Last year Wired reported that women only accounted for around 23% of the tech teams at Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook. At both Google and Microsoft, the proportion of technical employees who are Black and Latinx had risen by only one percentage point since 2014, while at Apple the number of Black technical workers was reported to sit at just 6% in 2019. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen industries that created our culture in such direct and constraining ways that have been so held by one group of people -- in fact, one person: Mark Zuckerburg, a man who essentially invented Facebook to rate women, she says. By the time the 2000s rolled around, social networking was taking off -- but white people were centred from the very beginning.

Silicon Valley’s white tech nerds are widely regarded as the internet's forefathers, but they weren’t the only movers and shakers in the early days of the net. As Boston-based professor Dr Rob Eschmann explains: “There is an untold history of the role that folks of colour have played in the development of these tools.” Social platform Black Planet was a precursor to MySpace and Facebook, and Blackbird was an early internet browser that influenced the way we search today -- both celebrated and centred Black culture online.

The history of the web has been whitewashed. The stories of NASA’s Black, female programmers of the 1950s and 60s are only recently being celebrated, and even now, people of colour and Black people in particular, have to work doubly hard for visibility online. Take Tarana Burke, an African-American activist who pioneered #MeToo in 2006 -- a movement that only truly took off when white Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano pushed it back into Twitter’s spotlight in 2017.

It’s not just individuals behind the web that make online racism inherent, but also the very way we use the internet can encourage hatred and division. “Without eye contact, people feel disconnected from the norms in human interaction that keep people a little bit civil,” explains Dr Eschmann. But algorithms are also pushing us towards extremism, showing us more and more sensationalist versions of what we are consuming -- look out for this next time you fall down a YouTube rabbit hole. The internet perpetuates racism on the level of code itself.

“Algorithms that are just meant to predict what people like, have internalised the subtle biases around race that we have in our culture,” adds Dr Eschamnn. Sites like TikTok have been called out for privileging middle class white users, facial recognition software is less able to identify Black faces and online profiling by algorithms could have significant psychological impacts on Black and brown people over time. “If you look at advertising on a lot of social platforms," Dr Nakamura continues, "research shows Black people are likely to get ads for bail bonds and defence attorneys and white people get ads for timeshare vacations, using the exact same platform.”

Of course, the internet can be used as a tool of anti-racism too. People of colour have successfully carved out counter-spaces and rewritten online narratives. During Hurricane Katrina, Black bloggers were instrumental in changing the record. “Mainstream news media talked about Black folks as looters,” explains Dr Eschmann. When Black people took food from supermarkets they were portrayed as lawless but their white counterparts as just “trying to survive.” “Black bloggers on the ground began sharing counter-narratives… There were people who were hungry, who were dying -- and nobody had come to help,” he recalls. Although it wasn’t their explicit intention to challenge mainstream media, through their efforts they changed history.

The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed racism back into the digital spotlight. It’s acted as a much-needed battle cry online, leading social media sites to overflow with comments, videos and memes that aim to tackle racism head-on. But can this ever translate to tangible change when activists tweet alongside visceral and vocal racism? Is it possible to pull the plug on online racism for good? “People can’t imagine it being any different -- and so they tolerate a level of hatred and incivility you just wouldn't allow in other media. If television was like the internet, people would not let their kids watch it,” Dr Eschmann theorises. As algorithms play an increasingly significant role in our lives, he says we need to regain a sense of outrage and shock, and that online institutions need to step up too: “It takes a minute to scrape any of those platforms for keywords like the N word or anti-semitic words and they just don’t do it.”

But everyone has to play their part. “Report things using the tools that platforms give you. When everybody turned out to protest, you couldn’t ignore it. If Twitter received a million complaints a day about racist, sexist language, it wouldn’t be easy to ignore,” Dr Eschmann adds. Saying something when you see racism online might feel futile but is effective: “When you are that voice that is saying something, you’re stopping the reproduction of racism… Racism is a big, structural level problem. But it manifests on an individual level through subtle ideologies and interactions. The more we challenge those things, the more we’re able to stop them.”

It’s easy to imagine the real world and virtual world as two separate universes, but the reality is that they’re knitted together. Until we eradicate racism in the real world, despite our best intentions, we won't be able to create an anti-racist paradise in the online world either.

the internet