How the movement's hashtag links black online life to its Civil Rights predecessor
As protests across the country demand an end to the police violence that took the lives against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has demonstrated now more than ever how the internet can be effective tool for organizing, amplifying, and educating people about the fundamental challenge in civic life: dismantling racist systems. It underlines how our shared spaces on the internet need to grapple with the same systemic biases and structures that code public space as “white space” by default all while marginalizing people of color.
What this moment calls for is acknowledging how the structures of racism make life especially difficult for people of color online and offline. We want to make sure we use this space to make sure those voices are heard and turn into action. In the interest of joining that conversation, we spoke with Charlton McIlwain about his book, Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter.
For many of political and media observers, the #BlackLivesMatter movement may seem like the moment when the struggle for racial justice and the internet converged, where online media such as Twitter became a powerful tool for protest. But the organizing power of that hashtag draws on how black people have been more central to creation and evolution of the internet, more than you may know. New York University professor Charlton McIlwain traces the struggle for racial justice and the development of the internet back further in history.
In his book, McIlwain demonstrates how the stories of early computing technology and the Civil Rights movement, often treated as two parallel stories, are actually intricately intertwined. That history is key to understanding how the computing tools have been used against black people’s humanity as well as how black communities built much of the internet’s foundations.
Here’s our conversation with Charlton McIlwain, edited for length and clarity:
Race and space are so intertwined. It is easy for us to think about something like a historical model of segregation, where people living in different zip codes have different life outcomes, but harder to think of the connections between websites or people even within social networks. What do you think makes that analogy helpful for mentally modeling the space we inhabit online?
One of the opportunities and difficulties is the internet is it has some spatial logic. What we sort of call a space. Web sites, whether they are static sites or dynamic platforms, have a web address. There is a location even though it's not physical but it is a determinable, identifiable space. Then the internet is driven by traffic, the circulation of users and people to those spaces—so that provided an opening in my research for place-based logic and a sense of movement.
The other layer of this for me and where I think the interesting questions started pop up was about value. Thinking of spaces being places for value, either places that we find value as users, we go there we find things that we want, we take advantage of the content on a site and creators produce content that they see has value for them.
That set me up to ask: Does the internet function in the same way online as people traffic to and from sites? Do we find users congregating and more or less the same way that we do geographically? Do we assess value as we do in a real estate sense, where certain people congregate or live in a given area and as a result who lives in a given space determines the value attached to that space. That matters both in terms of the people who use that space but also those who are selling, valuing, and exchanging that space for monetary gain.
Then how does space like this become a site for potential racial inequality and I think that was the open question: How does inequality get introduced online? It's always been produced offline through space through geography, through the circulation, the direction or the structuring of people's movements in and around spaces.
As you're doing this research, the Black Lives Matter movement emerges. You wrote a paper, Beyond the Hashtags (2016), about how the movement linked news and black culture. How did you think that linked to the power of #BlackLivesMatter?
What uniquely animates #BlackLivesMatter was that it was a way to signal, here's where we are, here are your people. We are talking about these particular issues and we can do so on our own terms. It was the electronic analog to what typically happened in earlier social movements which is you have a place where the work of organizing happens, where you talk through what your identity is, what your mission is, where you cultivate membership. It became a way to get access to masses of people and channel that in productive ways as the movement has demonstrated.
This comes back to the early days of the commercial internet in the 1990s, when we had very specific community-based sites of big places. These were places that were deliberately built for members of racial groups. I like to say "remember when the internet was black?" There was this moment in time where the new internet as we know it didn't have enough users for anyone to make a substantial commercial profit from it. Ted Leonesse, head of AOL at the time, recognizes that he needs users and he needs content. He’s got to be able to sell users something of value. Something worth paying a subscription, paying to get a computer and a modem, get all the things it takes to get online in 1994-1995. He needed a value proposition. So with David Ellington and Malcolm CasSelle, they take black cultural content, fuse it with this new medium, and make it accessible to masses of people in this online space: NetNoir.
That was the first commercially successful web community within AOL and it was built by black people, premised on black cultural products and content. It was black folks who were filling this space to show “this is what people will come to this new medium for.” To think about that as an origin story for the web blew me away, that black people and black content were the foundation on which this new web was built. It was revolutionary, but it's certainly not the story that we’ve ever told about the history of its development.
There's a challenge now to organizing online within public view. It strikes me that platforms need to be a lot more sensitive to the power dynamics of having other people looking into a community from the outside, something they are not necessarily invited to be a part of.
For all the advantages that we talked about from 2014 to 2016 when Black Lives Matter came on the scene, we quickly saw downside to this way of thinking about organizing where you're doing it in front of everyone and everyone has access. As much as it made it possible to organize creatively and to organize massively across geographical space, with synchronized protests, it didn't take much time for law enforcement to figure out well we can get a Twitter account, too. They could change an online identity to match someone who is affiliated with the movement and essentially infiltrate these organizations and thwart some of their organizing and plans.
The other downside was the co-opting of hashtags. I'm thinking early on with #whitelivesmatter that popped up or things that are happening now where folks will do a hashtag that is closely resembling "#JusticeForGeorgeFloyd" and then hail in other audiences and put out messages that are counter to what people fighting for racial justice are intending to do. Organizing in this very open way, also lends itself to all kinds of ways that can lose control of the message or outcomes.
What do you think your research on web traffic revealed about the decisions made for algorithmic news feeds or search engines?
We need to dispense with the notion that search engines in particular are colorblind. Even a rudimentary experiment with Google for instance demonstrates the ways in race and racial categories make up part of the search engine's architecture. Search for "black news outlets", and one finds results of black media and news outlets. Curious enough, if you just just search for "news outlets"; none of the results from the first search ends up in the second. Google recognizes the metatags sites use to describe their sites and content and they rely on that information to serve up search results, but as one can see, in a very unequal way. I can find black news if I'm looking for it but if I'm just looking for news, rarely will google point me in the direction of sites that feature news by, about or for black people.
Secondly, inasmuch as Google is as much an advertising company as it is a search engine, demographic details are a valuable commodity, a way to segment audiences to facilitate targeting. So race matters to Google, even as much as it feins, to a certain degree colorblindness. The same could be said for platforms like Facebook. Until recently, one could utilize Facebook's advertising portal to explicitly and implicitly include or exclude audiences based on race. Curious given that while Facebook user profiles provide the opportunity to include one's gender, religion, political affiliations, and other characteristics, they have never provided race/ethnicity as an option to self identify. Again, these and other platforms go through the trouble of appearing colorblind or race-neutral when much of their value is bound up in commodifying race and disparately exposing users to content.
Your book traces the history of computing back to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s but those are stories typically told separately, what do you think links them?
Until recently, the intersection of race, civil rights, and computing technology told a different story about the pivotal '60s moment: It was really that two things were happening simultaneously, shared by the accident of time but we're not in any way connected. You had the development of computers and the civil rights movement, but these were pitched as simply parallel stories. There wasn't a sense that people in computing labs or at science and engineering institutions were involved in civil rights or vice versa—that activists were not talking about new computing technology as part of their work.
One point that illustrates that overlap is in 1965: You have President Johnson who has convinced white Americans that crime is the number one problem plaguing cities in the United States. He finally responds and forms a commission to investigate what are the causes of crime and how does it happen. Then in very explicit terms, Johnson says that this crime problem is really a problem about black and other minority urban areas across the country that are the perpetrators of crime and therefore the problem that we must really solve.
Within that commission Johnson had a subcommittee, the science and technology committee, that he charged them to find ways to utilize new computing technology to help solve this problem of crime, which was essentially a problem about black people and blackness. But they are not only thinking about crime, there's also protests going on. Much the same way that we're experiencing over the last few days, the people who are protesting, and the people who are committing crimes, get conflated into one problem that has a black face.
They came up with a very quick result, forming what we call criminal justice information systems that were built and fully utilized by 1968. That laid the foundation for all kinds of things from racial profiling to predictive policing all of which became part of a law enforcement landscape by the end of the 1960 and has grown and multiplied since then.
The other aspect is that civil rights leaders were very much engaged in watching the development of new computing technology. They were particularly interested as much as it was tied to automation and early ideas about artificial intelligence and particularly as it related to work and access to jobs. Civil rights pioneers were talking very specifically about questions of what does this new computing technology do, and who has access to it.
It's an intersecting story in which civil rights both impacts and influences in many ways the way that computing technology was both developed and certainly deployed. It shaped the course of black life, civil rights, access to technology, with a disparate impact at the hands of criminal justice and other institutions.
I was just reading something that this MIT computer scientist put in a report to Congress about computer-mediated communication and social systems in 1971. He goes into how the “mental models” of people’s relationships are “fuzzy,” and goes into computers could make them more precise. But then the rest of the paper takes a turn towards solving the problems of “urban America” as if it were a math problem, ignoring the humanity within that.
That's been the problem from the very beginning, that I can use math and I can use computation and these new machinery to solve big problems. Because then we find one and inevitably, the problem becomes people—very specifically it becomes the same groups of people and then it's abstracted in a way by models and strategizing and applying this math as if those people are not people.
Ultimately, what someone comes up becomes completely destructive or serves the interests of one group while foreclosing on many others for other groups. The history of computing in many ways is a history of that sort of fallacious thinking that we can solve human problems with math and machines and not expect to turn those people into problems themselves or to not create vastly new problems and try to solve one in this way.
Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software is available in bookstores now.
Thanks for reading,
Illustrations by Josh Kramer
Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America. Please share this newsletter with your friends!