This essay is my provocation for “Engagement in a Time of Polarization,” Davidson Now’s pop-up MOOC.
In Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, he writes about early colonists and how the rich were feeling the heat of poor white folks and poor black folks associating too closely with each other. The fear was that the poor, despite being different races, would unite against their wealthy overlords. Shortly after, the overlords began to pass laws that banned fraternization between the races. The message to poor whites was clear: “you are poor, but you are still far better than that poor black person over there, because you are white.”
Polarization is by design, for profit.
Certainly for as long as there have been ways to segment individuals and groups, there has been polarization–the intentional pitting of those groups against each other so that they might focus on the ways they are different rather than the reasons they might unite. This doesn’t need to always be about race, as with the Zinn example. Polarization can and does occur according to class, gender and gender identity, geography, nationality…but when and where it occurs, it tends to be in service of the powerful and the status quo, not as some “natural” occurrence, but as result of dedicated efforts to create it.
It’s hard not to talk about Trump when talking about polarization in the present day. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay, “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place,” writes out loud the thing that we aren’t supposed to say about the election of Trump: “This was America and I knew it was because for me it always has been.”
For many, particularly black and brown women and men, and LGBTQ folks, polarization isn’t new: we’ve been here all along. The “digital” in polarization has made more visible what for so long was only able to be seen and understood if you believed the stories people have been telling since this country’s beginnings.
In a recent Wired Magazine essay, Zeynep Tufekci expertly detailed where we are and how we got here in the digital sense. We’ve been consistently fed the lie of the “marketplace of ideas” fetishized by Silicon Valley bros who make the tech we use, and we gobbled up the narrative they were peddling. When we look at digital technology and platforms, it’s always instructive to remember that they exist to extract data. The longer you are on the platform, the more you produce and the more can be extracted from you. Polarization keys engagement, and engagement/attention are the what keep us on platforms. In the words of Tristan Harris, the former Google Design Ethicist, and one of the earliest SV folks to have the scales fall from his eyes, “What people don’t know about or see about Facebook is that polarization is built into the business model,” Harris told NBC News. “Polarization is profitable.”
David Golumbia’s description of the scholarly concept of Cyberlibertarianism is useful here (emphasis mine) :
In perhaps the most pointed form of cyberlibertarianism, computer expertise is seen as directly applicable to social questions. In The Cultural Logic of Computation, I argue that computational practices are intrinsically hierarchical and shaped by identification with power. To the extent that algorithmic forms of reason and social organization can be said to have an inherent politics, these have long been understood as compatible with political formations on the Right rather than the Left.
So the cui bono of digital polarization are the wealthy, the powerful, the people with so much to gain promoting systems that maintain the status quo, despite the language of freedom, democratization, and community that are featured so prominently when people like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey talk about technology. Digital technology in general, and platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter specifically, exist to promote polarization and maintain the existing concentration of power.
To the extent that Silicon Valley is the seat of the technological power, it’s useful to note that the very ground of what we now call Silicon Valley is built on the foundation of segregating black and white workers. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law talks about auto workers in 1950’s California:
So in 1953 the company (Ford) announced it would close its Richmond plant and reestablish operations in a larger facility fifty miles south in Milpitas, a suburb of San Jose, rural at the time. (Milpitas is a part of what we now call Silicon Valley.)
Because Milpitas had no apartments, and houses in the area were off limits to black workers—though their incomes and economic circumstances were like those of whites on the assembly line—African Americans at Ford had to choose between giving up their good industrial jobs , moving to apartments in a segregated neighborhood of San Jose, or enduring lengthy commutes between North Richmond and Milpitas. Frank Stevenson bought a van, recruited eight others to share the costs, and made the drive daily for the next twenty years until he retired. The trip took over an hour each way.
Quite literally, Silicon Valley is built on the ground of segregation.
Tech platforms are, to borrow a legal term, fruit of the poisonous tree. The segregated ground of Silicon Valley is both the literal and figurative foundation for the platforms we use, and the design of these platforms, well-aligned with their racist history, promotes notions of free speech and community that are designed to protect the folks in society who already benefit from the most protections. ProPublica’s exposé on how Facebook understands the notion of a protected class on their platform is telling:
In the wake of a terrorist attack in London earlier this month, a U.S. congressman wrote a Facebook post in which he called for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims. “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them,” declared U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican. “Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”
Higgins’ plea for violent revenge went untouched by Facebook workers who scour the social network deleting offensive speech.
But a May posting on Facebook by Boston poet and Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado drew a different response.
“All white people are racist. Start from this reference point, or you’ve already failed,” Delgado wrote. The post was removed and her Facebook account was disabled for seven days.
Wired Magazine’s investigation of Facebook’s formula for protecting speech shows how the platform privileges whiteness; Facebook’s logic dictates the following:
Protected category + Protected category = Protected category
Protected category + Unprotected category = Unprotected
To illustrate this, Facebook’s training materials provide three examples—“white men”, “female drivers”, and “black children”—and states that only the first of these is protected from hate speech. The answer is “white men.” Why? Because “white” + “male” = protected class + protected class, and thus, the resulting class of people protected. Counterintuitively, because “black” (a protected class) modifies “children” (not protected), the group is unprotected.
If we had social media and rules for operating on platforms made by black women instead of bros, what might these platforms look like? What would the rules be for free speech and who gets protected? How would we experience online “community” differently than we do now? Would polarization be a bug instead of a feature? The historical disenfranchisement of black and brown women and men is compounded by these same folks still being walled off and locked out of tech institutions through hiring policy, toxic masculinity at the companies, and lack of access to venture capital. “Black women are the most educated and entrepreneurial group in the U.S., yet they receive less than 1% of VC (Venture Capital) funding.”
Buttressed by populations who don’t look much different from the ones Zinn discussed in his book, polarization persists, and benefits the people it has always benefited. The primary difference is that now people get snookered by the belief that technology is going to magically fix entrenched social and political problems as opposed to the earlier sucker’s game of believing their whiteness would save them.
Facebook’s decision to privilege the appearance of news organizations in the Newsfeed based on how users rank the organizations is just the latest example of this ruse. On its surface, this is “democracy” in its purest form. But as we’ve seen time and again (here, here, and here ) not only are these upvote/downvote schemes easily gamed by “bad actors,” they ignore significant scholarship from journalism, law, sociology, and psychology in favor of a favorite of the Silicon Valley crew: the wisdom of the crowd. And this crowd is pervasively white, male, and infected with notions of “protected” and “unprotected” categories that not-so-surprisingly perpetuate their privilege. Unfettered technological “free speech” often results in the marginalized or less technically proficient being drowned out. Silicon Valley’s high-school notion of social construction banishes expertise in favor of the images they see in the mirror. Facebook started as “Facemash,” a kind of “hot or not” where college students could vote on whether or not they found their female classmates attractive. Billions of dollars and billions of users later, Zuck is still doing the same thing.
The American Supreme Court decision Citizens United extended these categorical biases by ruling that corporations are people and money = speech. Thus, more money = more speech, and we are all free to get as much money as we can to have as much free speech as we can. In the same way, we are all free to develop our own platforms, get VC funding, and give ourselves digital megaphones. We are also free to mobilize an army of bots and sock puppets to amplify our message. Not doing so is cast as a choice rather than a result of design.
To Anatole France’s famous, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread” I might offer an addendum:
Tech platforms, in their majestic equality, allow both rich and poor alike to marshal digital tools to drown out dissenting voices, suppress votes, and spread falsehoods.
In Jessie Daniels’ Cyber Racism she discusses concepts of “seeking out” versus “recruitment” in how racism spreads on the web. Daniels points out that the term “recruitment” is misguided because it assumes that people are sucked into a vortex of racism rather than performing it out of their embedded white supremacy and “white racial frame” that is the setting of life in the United States. Certainly we are “hailed” (in the Althusserian sense), but we are hailed not out of some individual, psychological matrix, but out of the dominant cultural matrix and into social roles.
Daniels goes further by discussing what she calls “cloaked sites”:
“cloaked sites” call into question the value of racial equality by challenging the epistemological basis of hard won political truths about the civil rights era, about the Holocaust, and even about the end of slavery. By that I mean the cultural values about race, racism and racial equality that many consider to be settled by the victories of the civil rights movement going back to the en end of slavery, are, in fact, open for debate once again as white supremacy online offers an alternative way of presenting, publishing, and debating ideas that take issue with these cultural values.
What strikes me here are the similarities between white supremacist “cloaked sites” –websites published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship or intention in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda — that Daniels discusses and what have come to be known as “dark posts” on tech platforms—posts that are only seen by the individuals who are being targeted. These were notoriously a feature of the Trump campaign, and are convenient way to sidestep the few transparency laws in place regarding political ads. No mere bystander, Facebook works hand in hand with political campaigns across the globe on these projects. Again, this is polarization by design, despite the consistent claims of platforms of fostering community. The entire goal of a “dark post” is to single out individuals with messages crafted specifically for them, meant to mobilize the latent racial/ideological elements of the culture.
When we talk about “polarization” it’s most assuredly a loaded term. As my colleague sava saheli singh has said: “There’s race, there’s poverty, there’s digital literacy…maybe even start with stating it as intersectional polarization. Polarization affects different populations differently, and intersectional populations further differently.”
Like any abstraction, “Polarization” is fraught with meanings, but in this case, they are about class, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, technology, and power. These structures are filled with concrete instances from culture: content farms spewing out propaganda, police “heat maps” and the placement of cell site simulators in black communities, extractive platforms that benefit from the “engagement” of pitting one group against another, and the other hundreds of outrageous intrusions on our private and social lives that are first and foremost in the service of power. Digital Polarization is the technological mask for the age-old scheme of atomizing populations while making sure the powerful stay on top.