The following is an edited transcript of the Netroots Nation 2016 keynote plenary “The Digital CultureSHIFT: Moving from Scale to Power to Achieve Racial Justice,” which took place in St. Louis on Friday, July 15, 2016. This transcript is posted here with permission from Netroots Nation and the participating panelists.
Malkia Cyril [Executive Director, Center for Media Justice]:
I’d like to welcome you now to a special keynote conversation on race, technology, and movements for Native voices, Black lives, Muslim rights, migrant power, and racial justice in the 21st century. Where better to have such an important conversation than at Netroots Nation 2016? When better to look at how people of color are using digital strategies than in the days after anti-black police violence was live streamed from Facebook and videotaped by phone? Who better than some of the most brilliant thinkers on race and movement building in a digital age. There is no better place, there is no better time, and there are no better people to speak on these issues than the ones that are about to be introduced to you today.
Can I get a round of applause for this panel that’s about to come up?
See, we are here today because digital technologies are simultaneously being used to build people power and to build the police state. And we need an intersectional strategy so that the former, and not the latter, wins out.
We’re here today because racism has weakened and fractured innovation in organizing. For too long, the phrases “progressive technology” and “progressive media” have been synonymous with white progressives. This is despite the fact that many of the geeks and the freaks whose brilliance helped build the internet thirty years ago were people of color. This is despite the fact that today, a frequently migrating Black and Latino community uses smartphones more often, for more things, and are more likely to access the Internet from a mobile device than anyone else. It’s despite the fact that younger Black people use social media at a higher rate than anybody else, Black Twitter has its own name, even though of the 100 million people with limited access to the internet, the vast majority are Black, Latino, Native, rural, and poor. We are digital warriors today.
For too long, the phrases “progressive technology” and “progressive media” have been synonymous with white progressives.
Despite that, and I’m talking about the fact that attempts to reform mass incarceration look like the kind of electronic monitoring that turns our communities into open air prisons, despite the fact that the architecture of 21st century policing includes cell phone interceptors, facial recognition technologies, body-worn cameras, license plate readers, I’m talking about bills and laws against the right to encrypt our communications, bills and laws against the right to record police activity, while predictive police algorithms are trained to police our black and brown bodies. Still, we are digital warriors today. Despite all of these things, including that our bodies fall like GIFs on repeat on consolidated mainstream cable news, while our mugshots live longer than we do, still, strategic communications, progressive media, online organizing, Internet freedom, digital rights and privacy, mass surveillance, and all those words continue to conjure up a debate in which people of color and the fight for racial justice appears all but absent. But guess what family, we’re not absent. We right here.
Last year, I had the pleasure of working with Noah T. Winer to author a report called The Digital Culture Shift. We asked the question: are digital strategies building power for long term structural change? Or do they help to maintain the status quo? Here’s what we found out. We found that whether the Internet was really a force for change in the future depended entirely on the degree to which it is democratized right now. In every sector, in every city, we are facing a digital culture shift, where the relations of racial power haven’t changed, but the platforms on which power communicates absolutely have. And that’s why today, the racial justice Netroots is here, leading the way.
Without further ado, the Center for Media Justice is proud to partner with Netroots Nation to present The Digital CultureSHIFT, a keynote conversation with our moderator, the brilliant Samhita Mukhopadhyay.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay [Senior Editorial Director of Cultures and Identities, Mic]:
What a time to be alive right now. Interestingly, ten years ago today, the first tweet was sent. So, thinking about how media has changed in the last ten years, also thinking back to Netroots in 2009 I sat on a panel here at this conference about where the women bloggers were. And here we are, seven years later with a completely different media landscape. And a more robust media and internet presence than we’ve ever seen before, more storytelling, more access. And working in media, more information, coming at the speed of light, is so fast that sometimes it’s hard to parse through and even know if it’s accurate or not.
So to get started, we all know that online tools have helped us. We’re kind of almost in the third phase of internet advocacy. They’ve helped us not only respond to injustice, but they’ve also helped us change stories. They’ve helped us intervene in the way the mainstream has historically talked about disenfranchised communities. In your work, and I’ll start with you Rashad, how would you say the work you’ve done around race, both around race and narrative-building, how has it gotten better, and how has it gotten worse in the digital environment?
Rashad Robinson [Executive Director, ColorOfChange]:
I think about the current climate we’re in in terms of technology platforms both with opportunity and hope, and then a lot of caution. When we think about the way in which America was able to break through in the 1960s, and the stories of breaking through in the ’60s around civil rights, you hear a lot of stories around the images of television reaching the north, the images of people being sprayed with hoses, or dogs being unleashed on protesters and marchers, and folks being able to see those images and having a new understanding for what was happening, and the power that TV provided. There are stories from before that about the printing press, and around radio. And so we’ve seen a history of as new technology has emerged, that it’s provided a new voice, or new visibility for new communities. But we can’t mistake the presence of that for actual power, if we don’t own those platforms. If those platforms aren’t there to serve us. They are corporate platforms that at the end of the day serve a bottom line that is not necessarily going to be in the service of our liberation and our freedom. So what I want people to really recognize is the relationship between presence and power and not mistaking presence for power. Because as these platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram increasingly become incumbents in our space, they will continue to change their policies and their algorithms in ways that will limit our ability to have a free and open voice. So as we leverage these tools to be able to bypass traditional filters, to raise our voices, to get our voices out to new communities, we have to recognize at the same time that those platforms at the end of the day are not designed to serve our purposes. We have to organize and hold those institutions accountable, just like we have to hold all other institutions of power accountable in our work.
SM: Absolutely, and Linda in the work that you’ve done….One of my writers said to me yesterday, at a certain level you start to get really burned out when you’re constantly facing the level of Islamophobia that you face after something like what happened last night in france. And a brilliant writer, his name is Zak Cheney-Rice, said you’re constantly stepping up to defend the humanity of your people so that everybody doesn’t generalized. How have you navigated that pressure?
Make no mistakes about it. I’m still unapologetically Muslim. Everyday, yesterday, last week, next week. If you notice, I actually try not to answer those questions, when people ask where are the moderate Muslims? Where are the Muslims to condemn this terrorism? This question is inherently bigoted. It is rooted in bigotry. This idea that you think somehow that anybody, any human being in this world, or any people who call themselves Muslims, people who have submitted to a God, would actually somehow endorse the killing of innocent people—is racist. So I don’t even answer that question.
But I think Samhita, one of the most important roles that I have right now, and actually I used to work at the National Network for Arab American Communities until a few months ago, but I’m also the co-founder of MPower Change, which is the first Muslim online organizing platform. So if you’re not a member, get on it. But the point is that one of the things I want people to understand about the importance of using digital tools like ColorofChange, MPower Change, MoveOn, 18MillionRising, Ultraviolet, all the tools out there, and being able to record our own stories, tell our own stories, is because I’m not trying to let anyone 30, 40 years from now whitewash my story and my history. It’s all documented. So no one’s gonna try to take a Rashad or a Linda or sisters from Black Lives Matter and say who they thought we were and what they were trying to do, I want people to say, “well that must not be it, because we got all the documentation right here. They were radical, they were pushing us, they were doing direct actions, they were speaking truth to power every single day.” So this idea of using tools to tell our own stories is because corporate, paid-for media is not telling our stories the way we want to tell our stories. Corporate media, as a matter of fact, is engaging in the very Islamophobia that you’re talking about. They engage in the criminalization of our people every single day. So I don’t look to corporate media to tell my story. I count on myself, on other people of color, on other marginalized communities, to use the tools that are available to us, and also understanding that Net Neutrality and working on the non-privatization of these platforms, are our issues. Because without these platforms, there is no way for us to put our stories out in the way we want to tell them. So keep telling your stories.
So I don’t look to corporate media to tell my story. I count on myself, on other people of color, on other marginalized communities, to use the tools that are available to us, and also understanding that Net Neutrality and working on the non-privatization of these platforms, are our issues.
SM: 10 years ago when we founded Feministing, the founders did a quick Google search for women on the Internet and found a ten-year-old outdated page of incorrect facts about young women. What’s happened in the last decade is amazing. We have really robust and amazing spaces. But I think one of the results of blogging and what Netroots for so many years has been the centralized gathering space for, is bloggers that have held the mainstream media accountable. So while I do think the mainstream, specifically around Islamophobia, pushed narratives that aren’t great, or haven’t been helpful, I do think there is more awareness to report on the intersection of experience and identity. It almost feels like we’re at a point of media saturation, when it comes to the stories, and I think specifically around the recent slate of police killings. It may not be the narrative we want to hear, but we do see more coverage than before.
But while we’re seeing the coverage, there is still a huge disconnect on the actual progress on the issues. And kids are still being killed. So, Autumn, can you speak to where the disconnect lies? Why are we seeing so much amazing online organizing, media advocacy, even media accountability, and authentic stories being told, yet that’s not actually making it into change?
Autumn Marie [Black Lives Matter organizer]:
Part of the reason that we’re seeing stuff make it is not because media has made a shift. Media has not said: “hey, we need to start diversifying what we cover, we need to be covering it in a different way.” What has happened is that people have picked up their cameras, have started recording, have started citizen journalism, and have started posting on these platforms that Linda is referencing. We have made our stories go viral, and we have elevated our stories. So we’ve elevated our stories and centered them in a way that they cannot be ignored, we have really shown when we talk about all power to the people, what that means in digital space. So we really have shown what our collective power looks like on Twitter, on Instagram, and all our different spaces, in a way that has to be paid attention to. So that’s a huge part of why media is paying attention to it. The disruptions that we’ve seen, as we sit here and keep talking about how Netroots was disrupted last year and how that made space for us to be here and have panels like that this year, shoutout to everybody who did that last year.
It’s not a sensation to hear that someone is shot by the police anymore, if there’s not a video that accompanies it and where you see that person bleeding out.
So it is then us centering ourselves at the center of the narrative, it has been us pushing, us disrupting, us placing ourselves in these stories. But it goes back to what Rashad said, presence does not equal power. So the coverage is there, but we’re not getting the push for the change that’s happening. So you’re telling our story, but because it’s shock, it’s violence, it’s shock and awe, and because that is what media thrives on. It’s not telling our stories out of the concern for what needs to happen next. We talked about this earlier today on our panel. That means when you see someone shot fifty times, it’s no longer sensational until you see someone shot sixty times, and that’s an issue. It’s not a sensation to hear that someone is shot by the police anymore, if there’s not a video that accompanies it and where you see that person bleeding out. That’s an issue. So until that type of coverage changes and is just not around the shock and awe of it and the sensationalism of it, but instead why this is an issue, and what needs to change, we’re not going to see that. We need to push the envelope more. We see it every time with what’s going on right now with the coverage and what the narrative in the news over the tragedies in Dallas versus the tragedies of what happened to those killed by the police. And how we look at what it means to have mass murders in this country, and how that’s covered, versus the mass number of people murdered by the police.
SM: So if you could change one thing in the way these stories are told, what would it be?
Cayden Mak [Chief Technology Officer, 18MillionRising.org]:
I think one of the interesting things here too, about this point about us being able to influence the way mainstream media covers our stories, is also that the platforms that we use are still owned by corporations. And, the trouble here is that when Black suffering and Black death goes viral, Twitter’s making money. And I think as much as I love Twitter—and I love Twitter to death—we do have to ask this question: what is the investment of a company like Twitter in Black suffering and death when they’re making money when people are gunned down by the police. They’re actually extracting value from our communities, from our labor, and our suffering. And challenging them on that is really important. Thinking about how the tech industry is structured and the structure of how venture capital investment works, cuts at the heart of what it means to exploit communities of color.
AM: Essentially we need to move from being their social capital, our stories being their social capital, to us creating more of our own platforms. And it means us also shifting and supporting platforms. When we talk about how many of these platforms are owned by Black people, by people of color, and furthermore how many of them are owned by Black people and people of color who stand for social justice, essentially we need to move to where we have our own platforms. We can’t look to others to tell our stories. We know that that does not work. When we tell our stories on their platforms, they’re only getting covered because these platforms know that’s getting hits. But the minute something else comes in that can gets hit and the sensationalism I was talking about, then our story is no longer important. So we need to look at centering our stories in places where they matter and places where that is the interest in why that platform was created. We need to shift our social capital, and our social hits, over to those platforms. And more people who are here need to start to create those platforms.
Joseph Torres [Senior External Affairs Director, Free Press]:
I think on the coverage part, historically, we’ve had in this country from its very inception, from the first colonial newspapers to the present day—we’ve had a white racial narrative that’s been the dominant narrative of the media. And we have a media system that has always been controlled by white folks. And so as a result of that you get news coverage and media coverage always portraying people of color as a threat to society. And the purpose of this coverage is in service of white supremacy. It’s in service to it. Because you cannot do things to people of color, like enslave them, remove them from their tribal lands, or take away the Southwest, if you don’t dehumanize a person. When you dehumanize a person, you can do anything to a person. When we talk about race coverage today we have Les Moonves as the head of CBS saying Donald Trump may be bad for America, but it’s a lot of fun because he’s making money. Or you have Saturday Night Live having Donald Trump on because racism is good for business. And what you have is car crash coverage where folks yell at each other, and everyone is hurt by this car crash. In this coverage of race, everyone is hurt, everyone is a part of this car crash. And unfortunately media companies are less interested in actual journalism, it’s entertainment. It’s reality television.
We live in a de facto media apartheid system, basically. Where people of color only own 3% of full power TV stations, 7% of radio stations, and very few cable companies.
What we really need is coverage that deals with structural and institutional racism. So when we talk about policing or immigration or whatever the issue is—we don’t really learn anything about the historical, structural, institutional factors. This is why the Open Internet has been critically important right now, because it’s allowed voices in a way that we really haven’t seen, to interrupt the white racial narrative. We live in a de facto media apartheid system, basically. Where people of color only own 3% of full power TV stations, 7% of radio stations, and very few cable companies. So the open platform has allowed us to disrupt the message. But my concern is, as Rashad and everyone has been saying, is that: I heard a Black Lives Matter organizer tell me, we need journalism that prevents Black bodies from falling. And that’s not the kind of journalism we have. We have to disrupt the white racial narrative—that’s what’s happening. It’s a good thing. We have seen pain. If you look at historical newspapers you see lynchings on the front page and people smiling, so I’m concerned about all these videos of Black death and how it may desensitize people to this. We’re not getting to the narrative of the causes of what’s happening. The media isn’t interested in covering that narrative. We need structural, institutional coverage of racism in our journalism.
SM: One thing we grapple with a lot at Mic is, one of the verticals I run is “Identities,” and it’s all people of color, and there is a kind of exhaustion that happens from continually covering these police killings. And one thing I’ve thought a lot about is the kind of double burden that’s put on journalists of color, to have to continually tell these stories. My question for you is, I do think media consolidation is a problem, media ownership is a problem, but several outlets…are trying to integrate, incorporate, and often centralize voices of color. You’re seeing this at Buzzfeed, you’re seeing this at Mic, you’re also seeing Wesley Lowery at the Washington Post, you have Charles Blow at the New York Times, you have Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic. What role does diversity in the newsroom play? And is that enough?
JT: I worked at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists for years, and diversity in the newsroom of course is important. But we still don’t own the operation. And so, these conversations happen over and over again. There’s fewer journalists of color working today than there were in, I believe it was 1989. I think we need journalism platforms that we actually own. And there’s very little venture capitalist money or investment in online news sites. And you named a few that may be trying to center [voices of color] but there’s a whole lot of online publications that don’t have any people of color, or very few, and there’s no excuse. Because there have been thousands of journalists laid off in recent years, there’s no reason you can’t hire a journalist of color. Diversity is really important. You have people who are able to influence the newsroom and all that, but it’s still a struggle for journalists of color. I’m about to go to a National Association of Black Journalists convention, and I can tell you the conversations they’re going to be having at the conference are the same ones we were having when I started going in 1995.
AM: It’s not enough to have us there. In the work that I’ve done around how we cover the narratives of what happened here in Ferguson and St. Louis, as well as what’s been happening, we’ve done several roundtables with Black journalists both from Black-owned media and those from “mainstream” outlets, and it’s the same thing. Those who are working under larger outlets are fighting the oppression, are fighting the discrimination, are fighting the same things we’re fighting out here in their newsrooms to tell their stories. They are that Black person, a lot of times, who’s living that story of knowing what it means to be Black in the U.S. and trying to tell our story and not just cover it, but actually tell the story. But they’re still within the confines of this outlet. So it’s not enough to put people of color in the space. To those who are in that space who are people of color: please keep pushing as much as you can. But it ultimately does go back to us having to have our own platforms so we don’t have to answer to the person above. You don’t have to deal with the confines.
RR: I want to talk a little bit about an action intervention, because for folks out in the room who are hearing this and wondering “what can I do about this?,” and I’m looking at some of my incredible team from ColorOfChange. At ColorOfChange, we recently put together this report looking at crime coverage in New York. We had this larger theory around crime coverage on local news, and looked at studies from Pew and others around the power of local news coverage. Outside of the partisan space of cable news, local news is how people get information about their community. So we looked at crime coverage over the course of 6 months every single night, with our partners at Media Matters, and really looked at tracking crime by race. Every time they labeled a suspect by race on TV, across the four networks on nightly news. Then we took those numbers and compared them back to NYPD arrest records. Arrest records, as Linda and I both know from our work, are skewed because of stop and frisk, and racial profiling, and broken windows policing. But we compared it back. And across all the networks there was a thirty to seventy percent distortion rate, in terms of over-showing Black crime and underreporting white crime. So now that’s an advocacy tool. But imagine trying to change public policy around criminal justice in a space where every time people are going home and being told who to be afraid of. Who to fear. Who needs to be over-policed. And they’re being sold a story by corporate media that’s in relationship with corporate sponsors, to keep us all inside of our safe bubbles and our safe narratives.
So how do we do the sort of advocacy work that shifts that? We have to both do the outside game of holding news networks accountable, going after their advertisers, getting people fired if necessary. But then we also need to do the work on the inside: the training, the implicit bias work, and the work to help institutions change how they’re making decisions on a nightly basis that in aggregate gives us this type of result that sends people a harmful message about what our communities are about, and does not give people the tools to be good citizens in our democracy. In terms of what all of us can do, we can continue to build the type of campaigns that force institutions to have to change, and have to change not just in that moment, because we can respond to those individual moments but it sort of becomes like whack-a-mole at the carnival, where you hit one thing down and another pops up. News stations will always do stuff bad. But how do we shift things at the systems level so we start to see results that are impactful five, ten, and fifteen years from now?
LS: Just to add on things we can do. We could support media that is owned by people of color. I’m gonna give a big shout out to my brother Roland Martin at News One and TV One. We have to understand there are people that have taken the risk, that have taken off their corporate media hat, and said, “I’m going to invest and I’m going to commit myself to stories of people of color and to truth-telling.” We could be supporting entities like Democracy Now and platforms that are telling the truth, that are going to the root of the problem. We also do put a lot of pressure on journalists of color to tell our stories, but we have to understand that they too are in a system that is not always in line with who they are. They too are fighting for stories from the inside. They too are standing up against editors who are saying “no, we have to reframe this, and you’ve got to change this.” We also have to understand that a lot of the conversations that are happening in the media are about us, without us. I see so many pseudo-Muslim experts and I’m like, homies, you ain’t even Muslim. This idea that you can talk about me, without me, is the problem. So what I always tell people is, first and foremost, support those individual, independent journalists when they’re putting out stories and helping their stories go viral. Supporting entities like TV One and folks like Roland Martin. When we saw MSNBC take down Melissa Harris Perry, she gave voice to a lot of young people in the movement. She gave me my opportunity to come in on a Saturday morning show and give my voice as an American Muslim, but also as a supporter of the Movement for Black Lives. So these people need us to have their back.
And I’ll say this last thing, also. When we’re being approached by the media, and when I get approached by some mainstream media outlet and they say to me, “Linda, I want you to write an op-ed.” And people will say, “Linda, that’s your opportunity, you gotta take it because they don’t always ask people like you.” I always tell people this: you want me to write an op-ed, I write it on my terms, the way I want to write it. So for example, they say, “look Linda, we know not all Muslims are bad, let’s talk about the good Muslims, the American Muslims, the ones that are proud to be American.” This idea that the media wants us to frame things in a way that makes sense to them and they think their audience is, doesn’t mean we gotta take every opportunity. Sometimes we gotta say no. Because no matter what, you get caught up in what they want. No, I’m not going to use your platform to “condemn terrorism on behalf of all Muslims” because that is already is putting me in a frame that I don’t want to be in. I also don’t wanna talk about the “good protesters” and the “bad protesters.” This is what they want us to do. And what I saw recently really connected the struggle for me, with what Muslims are having to deal with when it comes to the media, and what happens in the Movement for Black Lives. Here we had a situation where people were like, “where are the Black Lives People at? Who’s gonna condemn that guy that shot the cop,” as if people in the Black Lives Matter movement who are every day fighting for the right for people to live, have to stand up and be like “no, it’s so wrong to kill cops.” This distorted idea that somehow people who are fighting to survive would actually condone the killing of other people. So don’t fall into that frame. Don’t worry about what people are gonna say. So if the media isn’t on your terms, you walk away from that. Let someone else write that. Don’t feel like you have to compromise your principles just to be in the “mainstream” media.
SM: I think you all bring up really interesting points about the pressures that journalists of color feel especially in the digital media market where click-through rates matter more often than the stories we get to tell. I do want to pivot a little bit: we’ve talked a lot about narrative-building and the role that the media plays in telling these stories. But many of you are also online organizers, and there is also a role that tech companies and technology play in mobilizing people. I’m really interested in how you navigate the tension, since technology has given us the tools to mobilize numbers of people that we’ve never seen before historically. But the same technology is also policing communities, it is giving cops a lot of high-tech tools. How do we navigate that pressure, and what role do tech companies play?
RR: It’s a challenging conversation. I think it is that balance of not simply being overexcited about the platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and recognizing that these are corporate platforms, that at the end of the day are focused on their shareholders. And in the service of other things, but we have to recognize that that will happen. We’ve done a lot of pushback against tech companies, both in terms of diversity hiring—where we forced Twitter to have to release their diversity numbers and after they released it, we saw they had 2% African American. And they failed to disaggregate the numbers and tell us that within that 2% they had listed employees who are fighting for a living wage on their campus like bus drivers and cafeteria workers and janitors.
We’ve had to come up against corporations most recently as we’ve been fighting to get corporations to divest from the RNC convention. Working to channel everyday energy of people to say that a Trump convention is not a convention that corporations who want a relationship with the Black community can put their money behind. And the ColorofChange PAC along with a coalition of organizations has worked to push on corporations like Coca-cola and Microsoft and others. But we saw many of the Silicon Valley companies refuse to leave, like Google and Facebook and Twitter, refuse to divest from the convention, believing that they had to play both sides. We also saw that in our ALEC work as we forced over 100 corporations in partnership with many to divest from ALEC in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin and Stand Your Ground, in the aftermath of voter ID, telling those corporations they couldn’t come for our money by day and try to take away our vote and our life by night. And as we did that work, and as we were up to about 60 corporations, in the middle of the George Zimmerman trial, we saw Silicon Valley companies joining ALEC as other companies were leaving.
And so we have to recognize that as we see this cultural boom in Silicon Valley we have to do all that we can to hold these corporations accountable. As we work to respond to moments and build energy, and think about the systemic pivots that change structures of how we live, we can’t just think about these platforms as the tools that we get to tell our stories on, but these are the tools that will decide when we can’t tell our stories, when our stories get blocked, when videos get removed.
As we increasingly see platforms emerge that control our participation, and…control when those videos are actually put up and when they get taken down, our ability to speak with an unfiltered voice will continue to be challenged.
Twenty-four years ago, the video of Rodney King being beaten surfaced. When that video surfaced, someone had to videotape it, they had to make a decision about what they were going to do. They sent it to the local station and the local station then had a conversation about what they were going to do. And finally they decided to release the video. And so it had to go through a lot of filters, and a lot of hands, before it was able to have a cultural impact. And so now we do feel empowered by the idea that we have these powerful tools in our hands, that can allow us to move video and content. But as we increasingly see platforms emerge that control our participation, and control who gets to see those videos through algorithms, gets to control when those videos are actually put up and when they get taken down, our ability to speak with an unfiltered voice will continue to be challenged. And the only thing that we have on our side is our people power: the ability to collectively organize and push back. There is no tool that is stronger and more fierce than our ability as everyday people to raise our voices and push back. And we have to do that against corporations, whether they are Silicon Valley corporation, Wall Street corporation, oil corporations, all of them need to hear from us on a regular basis.
CM: I think that this message about people power is really important. Because the Internet that I came up in was an Internet where if you wanted something on the Internet, you had to put it there. And you had to teach yourself how to code. And I’m not one of those people who are like, well everyone needs to learn to code and that’ll make the world a better place, because I frankly think that’s bullshit. But at the same time, I want to shout out the fact that we do have a lot of incredible technologists of color who are working in open source communities, building technology for us, by us. It may not be Twitter, but those things are there.
Platform cooperativism…harkens back to the Internet before everything was this walled social media garden. We’ve had an Internet like that before, and we can have an Internet like that in the future.
Increasingly what’s called the “sharing economy” is really about you and I sharing less and less, and someone at the top getting richer and richer. But what’s interesting is that from these open source communities we’re seeing new kinds of real sharing. Maybe calling them new is a little wrong because worker-owned cooperatives have existed for a very long time. And I’ve got a lot of friends who are engineers and designers who are starting worker-owned cooperatives to build technology, and that shit’s badass. There are people who are talking about platform cooperativism. Like what would it be like if everybody in this room owned Twitter? Think about that for a second. What would it be like? How would we govern Twitter differently than the folks who actually own Twitter? And I think these things are really hopeful. These things sort of harken back to the Internet before everything was this walled social media garden. We’ve had an Internet like that before, and we can have an Internet like that in the future.
And what’s really important about spaces like this is that we’re folks who are thinking hard about technology, who are doing the organizing, and we also have the power to start putting our money where our mouths are, supporting those worker-owned cooperatives, supporting open source development, and adopting some of those tools.
JT: I just wanna say real quick, that for me, the reason I work on media policy, is that everything has a policy solution. But when you talk about structural racism and institutional racism impacting people of color, and we’re talking about platforms and narrative and fighting against the surveillance state…you know, newspapers, early colonial newspapers when they put out ads for runaway slaves, that was one of the first instances of surveillance, of using modern communications tools to surveil. But I think that we also have to deal with the structural racism within the media itself that does not allow us to own anything. And we’re always at someone else’s mercy to convince them to tell our stories or they’ll shut it down.
But there also is an accountability play. During the 1970s for example, all across the country civil rights groups challenged broadcast licenses for the first time en masse, and that led to the first wave of journalists of color entering the newsroom. And led to programming. So we definitely have to hold Twitter and Facebook accountable, but we also have to ask ourselves: how does the structure of the media itself have to change? We are soon to be the so-called majority-minority, whatever that means. But what kind of society are we living in if the people who make up the majority of the population do not control the construction or dissemination of their own narrative? We work on structure in the media in order to dismantle a system that has not worked for us. When has the mainstream media been a reliable source? I turn away from mainstream media when something happens on television and turn to folks online who are presenting me with an alternative narrative that’s challenging the main narrative. We have to hold mainstream media, Twitter, Facebook, all these platforms accountable, but we also have to think about how do we own our own platforms going forward. And there’s a role of policy here. There’s a role of structural racism in policy-making that we have to confront. And the questions are not easy.
What kind of society are we living in if the people who make up the majority of the population do not control the construction or dissemination of their own narrative?
Net Neutrality was an example of a fundamental right—we just want to speak freely online without Internet service providers getting their way, and we fought for that, and over 100 racial justice and civil rights groups led by Center for Media Justice and ColorOfChange, Black Lives Matter was a part of it, made that happen. But it is tough to fight for racial justice, any kind of justice, if you can’t speak for yourself. That’s the reason I do the work that I do.
LS: I think there’s been in this conversation a lot of responsibility on the media side, but I also think there are examples of people who have been given some platform within the “mainstream” media, particularly on national television. And one of the things I encourage people to do, because I’ve tried it and it actually so far has worked for me: you gotta take the risk that you may never get invited back to a show on CNN or MSNBC. What that means is, you’re not gonna go up there and waste too much time talking to 900 people about how you’re going to frame and reframe your message, because they’re trying to talk to white folks. Because that’s what we’re told to do, that we’ve got to be professional, that there are certain words you don’t use on national television. And in my mind, when people say “you’ve got to connect with the audience” I’m always wondering who that audience is that they’re talking about. I’m trying to talk to Black people, I’m trying to talk to Latinos, I’m talking to Asian Americans. I’m talking to progressives and liberals. Because I know for a fact that we are already a majority when it comes to the type of work that I’m trying to do. So whether it be Rashad, Marc Lamont Hill, sisters from Black Lives Matter—I watch these people go on national television and speak truth to power, and still get invited back. So when you are given a platform, use that platform to speak truth. And sometimes it’s gonna be uncomfortable truth, you’re gonna get hate afterwards, you might get a death threat here and there, but you know what? It’s worth it. What I’m saying to you is this: when given the opportunity to share your story, you also have a responsibility, not just the media. The only responsibility you have to the people and the movement is to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. And you may not get invited back, and that’s alright.
AM: If you have nothing else, you have your story. That’s all that you have sometimes in this life. And so it is the most precious capital, it is the most valuable thing that you possess: the story of your life and those that came before you and those before them that came before them. So if that is the most valued thing to us, we don’t just need to sell it to the highest bidder, which I think is part of what Linda is saying. A lot of times, as somebody who works in PR, I know there’s a time to speak. You don’t have to speak right away, you don’t have to give a comment right away just because a situation just happened. Realize the power that is in your story. When these murders happen, when things happen in our community, the news wants to hear what we have to say. Don’t feel like if you don’t comment right now, you’re gonna miss your opportunity. Realize the power that lies in your story because then you can bargain and then you can put the ball in your court in terms of how you want to tell your story. Don’t just give it away to the first person that comes. Guard your story and know it’s value.
And in terms of platforms, right now perhaps we don’t have enough Black-owned platforms or enough owned by people of color, and that’s not gonna happen overnight. But in the meantime, we need to harness the power that we have. When we see courageous people like Diamond Reynolds telling her story and telling the truth of what happened to Philando Castile on Facebook Live, how do we then take that and harness it? When you see us now using Facebook Live to do a lot of our media chats and live things that are happening in our community, how do we harness that with Facebook and say hey–this is what we need and we’re going to hold you accountable the same way we go to politicians. So when we realize what we’re bringing to these platforms that we do use, we also need to harness that power and call for some accountability and not be scared to do it.
SM: So, speaking of harnessing power, let’s close with that. We know that a lot of change happens locally, and a lot of these digital strategies, narrative-building, story-telling, Facebook, Twitter, they’re national. These tools are galvanizing people nationally. How do we harness that power locally? Is it possible? And what sort of infrastructure do we need to take click-through rates, tweets, viral moments to actually make impact at the local level?
CM: So in my work, one of the things that we’re working on is VoterVox. And the idea behind it is that in Asian and a lot of immigrant communities, folks of my generation do a lot of cultural and linguistic translation for our elders, in order to get folks to understand what’s going on in the U.S. context. One of the things that we’ve done is use collaborative design methodology—actually going to the cities where folks live who are going to be using this, and engaging young people and limited English proficient voters in the design of the tool.
…Increasingly, folks who don’t think of themselves as technologists can and should insert themselves into creating digital tools.
I think increasingly, folks who don’t think of themselves as technologists can and should insert themselves into creating digital tools, because it’s at that local face-to-face level that things really start to change, and we can start to change the design of systems, whether that’s high technology stuff, or your city budget, or building on public land. We have the tools in our communities to build these things. I think that a lot of times we’re looking at national narratives and stuff like that, we lose sight of the fact that there are fights happening in all of our backyards that require our skills and our brilliance and our stories and our expertise in order to build that different world. We have the power, we are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.
AM: I urge us to look at all of our local areas and to put the energy into making all of our local stories national stories. So what does that mean? That means that at the same time we’re watching what’s happening in Baton Rouge, that we use that to inspire us to lift up our own local stories that are happening in our backyards. Unfortunately we have police murders that are happening all across the country. So when we see that, yes, lift that up but also be inspired to tell the story of what’s going on, be inspired to record what’s going on in your community and put just as much energy into making that a national story because it gives us the power to be able to get national force around what’s happening locally. And though we’re talking about what do on the digital side and what we do online, I’m gonna say go offline at a certain point. Part of it is about going offline and talking to each other face to face, having the conversations on our block, because lots of conversations happen on Twitter and Facebook that are very important but we also need to go back to having the conversations on our stoops, door-knocking, and talking to people in our own neighborhoods.
LS: I think we underestimate that we’ve already done a lot using digital tools. Anywhere from #OscarsSoWhite to seeing the increase of people of color who’ve been added to the Academy Awards, whether it be the uplifting of stories of people of color who are being gunned down across the country…this is nothing new, it’s been happening but now we’re able to uplift and humanize those stories. We’ve been able to talk about politics and really take over the Internet to shift looking at the massacres that were happening in Gaza in 2014. There’s no way of denying the oppression of people around the world but we’re able to uplift those stories and put them in the face of people and tell me: deny these people their humanity. We’ve done that. It’s not something we have to do, we’re already doing it, we just gotta keep doing it.
RR: There’s a quick story that was told to me by some organizers from SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] that will help us understand that what we’re doing here with technology and tools is nothing new. In the 1960s, SNCC installed the WATS line in their Shaw University office. WATS [Wide Area Telephone Service] was the precursor to the 1-800 number. It allowed them to bypass the mob bell operators because at the time, the operators had to call person to person to make a long-distance call, and in the South they were largely controlled by the White Citizens Council and the KKK. So calls would be intercepted. So they installed the WATS line to be able to move information quicker, to bypass those operators and to do it quicker than they could previously, and cheaper. It did not change their organizing strategy. WATS wasn’t their organizing strategy. It didn’t change their theory of change.
10 years ago when Black people were on their roofs, literally begging for the government to respond in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and nothing happened, it was about power. It was about no one being nervous about disappointing Black people. And as a result, anything could happen to Black people. Our work as a movement cannot simply be about technology, but it has to be about building the type of power that changes the written and unwritten rules, that allows us to build the type of energy that forces institutions and government to be nervous about disappointing us, and have to do the things they need to do to make our communities whole. So beyond tools, it’s about changing culture, and changing rules, and building the power that will change how we all get to live.
Malkia Cyril: So how do you fight for a new story? You’ve heard so many different ways that people are fighting for a new story. How do you walk out of this room and fight for a new story? You create. Where my artists at? You create and build a new narrative. You hack the system. Where my technologists at? Hack that system. Where my organizers at? You organize communities to build power. But what you never do is believe the myth that knowledge is power. It isn’t. Let me tell you what’s power: power. Black power, that’s power. People power, that’s power.
And let me tell you when this nation will change: when white people organize the working class white communities that are being manipulated by the Trumps of the world. When white people organize their own communities and tell a new story and tell a new story about racism. When we give up our addiction to white supremacy and white power, that’s when we will change. That’s when this nation will change. We will not have a national crisis of Black bodies littering our streets. We will not have an international crisis. We will have an international resistance movement. That’s what we’re building today. That’s the new story we’re going to tell. And I want you all to make this commitment now.