Last week, Twitter said it was “pausing” to reconsider the process by which it bestows the blue check mark denoting accounts that had been “verified,” and on Wednesday the company announced that it was yanking the designation from some users who occupy the neo-Nazi or nationalist bucket of grassroots white activism. The announcements came after many users, including The Root’s Monique Judge, raised hell when Twitter gave a blue check mark to Jason Kessler, a white nationalist who helped plan the pro-Confederacy march in August in Charlottesville, Va.
While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his workers ruminated on the company’s account-verification policies, I decided it was a good time for black people to pause and think about our relationship with Twitter and other social media and technology companies. We voluntarily “contribute” our creative insights, dollars and labor to the success of these companies by buying devices and apps, uploading memes, ideas and language that trend widely. Yet in terms of the vast wealth these companies hold, disburse to employees and generate for shareholders, we get little in return.
Think of the recent moment when top lawyers for Google and its parent company, Alphabet, along with Twitter and Facebook, were summoned to Capitol Hill to testify before Senate and House committees looking into the company’s role in disseminating toxic content and ads during the 2016 presidential election cycle.
I shared the congressional investigators’ agita—and the pointed through line of their questioning: How did we get to the point where tech seems to be drowning American democracy? How could the educated, experienced “technologists” who built and run these companies have missed the Russians’ insidious gaming of their platforms?
I think there’s one big reason among several that led to the companies’ obliviousness: The tech industry is nearly wholly centered in an exclusionary bubble of white men who finance, develop and market the platforms and applications. The same biases that led to the development of social media startups built on algorithms that enable racial profiling (like NextDoor), or that inform court decisions resulting in blacks and Latinos receiving unduly harsh sentences (like COMPAS), played a role in the Russians’ stealthy misinformation campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter.
Anti-black messaging was the secret sauce of many of the pro-Trump, nationalist memes and messages that flooded through the popular social media channels during the 2016 election cycle. Yet somehow, the gatekeepers at Facebook and Twitter didn’t seem to notice the methodical manipulation of racial animus that already exists in America—specifically, some white Americans’ negative opinions of blacks.
The leaders and staffs of Twitter, Facebook and other popular social media platforms missed the Russians’ exploitation of the black-white divide, an obliviousness that has precedent: Black women who use Twitter had long alerted the platform’s officials to the abusive conduct of other users, up to and including death threats. The hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing catalogs such experiences from black women dating back several years and is readily available ... at least to those interested in learning about and addressing these kinds of user experiences.
But clearly, the tech-company leaders were not inclined to pay attention to this area of user complaints, a strong indication that they also probably weren’t interested in the views of the few black and Latinx workers at their companies, either. Just look at what happened to Leslie Miley, a black former engineer at Twitter. Miley revealed in a recent interview that he had flagged tons of dubious accounts in 2015, telling his bosses that he believed they were from Ukraine or Russia and that they appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign.
Miley was told by his bosses at Twitter to “stay in his lane,” a response that Miley says he took as a sign that the company leadership preferred to err on the side of “growth numbers” rather than on any potential harm to audiences that the bots might pose.
Meanwhile, black users of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Google products infuse them with a deep coolness factor that resonates around the world. Our intellectual property and creativity is the lifeboat that floats these companies to revenue solvency, yet few of us share in the enormous economic wealth generated by these companies, not even after dozens of news stories, industry conferences and activists’ complaints forced the companies to pledge to improve hiring and retention.
The history of black-white tension in America was a major flashpoint manipulated by the GOP during the presidential campaign (not for the first time), and the Russia-controlled bots capitalized on whites’ fears of and disdain for black Americans. This exploitation has been documented by federal investigators, as well as media, including Terrell J. Starr here at The Root and at other news outlets.
Yet the owners, leaders and staffs at the tech companies did not seem to notice or care about the implications of the sneaky manipulation while it happened in real time. The incredible whiteness of their leaderships and staffs is akin to, but far worse than, that of the news industry (which is significant). And the companies’ whiteness is a big reason they missed the infiltration of these divisive messages and tribal calls to action during the 2016 presidential election cycle.
Black Americans know when something smells rotten, including the kinds of scams and shady b.s. that can unfold at one’s job. And, as usual, blacks and other marginalized communities have solutions. We have the brainpower, problem-solving acumen and moral fortitude to right the ship of state.
The question is whether our concerns and advice will be heeded and whether we can achieve full access to the genuine levers of power in the United States, including access to quality education, health care, voting and, most importantly in the context of the innovation ecosystem, investment capital.
If you regularly shout out Chance the Rapper or Ava via the ’gram, or post your hair-braiding tutorials on YouTube or Amazon.com commercial verticals and cash the resulting PayPal deposits accordingly, you are well within your rights to hold these companies accountable and question the political and economic structures that gave these companies ready access to us, their most valuable cultural assets. Our fixating on the blue check mark of verification should be the least of it.
While there certainly are rough seas and shimmering mirages all around, I do see promise and opportunity in the amazing tech discoveries and innovations that enter the marketplace daily. I also see a future in which blacks and other historically marginalized creators and entrepreneurs more powerfully leverage their advantages in service of owning these technologies.
Right now we’re swimming in amazing discoveries, yet drowning in age-old belief systems and tribalism that effectively cancel out far-ranging benefits of the powerful machines that increasingly shape our experiences.
It is up to us see to it that tech is built and used to positively tell our stories, support our causes and policies, and shape our destinies.