Myth #18: The Internet is an emancipatory tool to end all dis-crimination.
Myth: The Internet and information and communication technologies are neutral tools providing public spaces that offer easy and effective participation for all and make so-called minority-issues part of a larger social discourse, thereby fostering inclusion and overcoming power differentials that plague traditional and linear media.
Busted: An end to sexism, racism, ableism? For a long time, the Internet was regarded as the foremost emancipatory tool to overcome all systems of exclusion. (#28, #42) Even though the Internet represents a space of communicative self-actualization for many marginalized social groups (#metoo, #metwo, #schauhin, #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow), even in digitality these groups are still particularly affected by discrimination. Digital violence, continued exclusion practices and hate speech are still present online. Sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, trans- and homophobia figure prominently in hate speech. Moreover, membership in more than one group which is targeted online increases the danger of becoming a victim of digital violence. As Amnesty International confirmed in 2018, “women of colour, religious or ethnic minority women, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LBTI) women, women with disabilities, or non-binary individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms of male and female, will often experience abuse that targets them in unique or compounded way”. This is dangerous. If socially discriminated groups experience additional violence in the digital sphere and therefore withdraw from participating, this effects negatively the rationality of socio-political discourse processes mediated by technology.
Discrimination in digital spaces is not limited to forms of digital violence. Rather, the Internet acts as a mirror of the society in many ways, shaping all forms of discrimination as diverse as the society itself. Technology is never neutral. Stereotypes of discrimination have been manifested in the codes and are transferred to deep learning mechanisms through the use of biased training data. The normalization and standardization of human bodies and lifestyles is implicitly inscribed in the codes. Biometric facial recognition is widely known to be unable to identify People of Colour because it usually relies solely on white training data sets. Similar to this, AI training data sets from autonomous vehicles disregard training data from non-normalized bodies such as wheelchair users.
All technologies that create, organize and expand the digital are not neutral or unbiased, but are social constructions which are always tied to existing relations of power, domination and discrimination. In doing so, they have been proven to link up with colonial practices where the collection of social data already supported the establishment of a patriarchal power structure. Digital technology by no means makes us a community of equals. Apart from some positive examples, such as empowering hashtagged movements and the possibilities to mobilize and raise awareness quickly and globally, the Internet strengthens existing systems of power and exclusion. For this reason, digital innovation must always be critically questioned.
Truth: The Internet is not a neutral platform for global empowerment. Rather information and communication technologies mirror the structures of social power and domination in our societies. They are saturated with systems of discrimination and exclusion. If left unchecked, vulnerable groups will be marginalized online as well, and prejudice and discriminatory practices will be digitalized and exacerbated.
Source: Nicole Shephard: What is sexual surveillance and why does it matter?, genderit.org (2017), https://www.genderit.org/feminist-talk/what-sexual-surveillance-and-why-does-it-matter; Rachel E. Dubrofsky, Shoshana Amielle Magnet, Feminist Surveillance Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).