Like A Mushroom Expelling Its Spores
"Anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, and all of their intersections, undergird digital technologies — including the internet."
📝 Monthly Round-Up
A Black Woman Invented Home Security. Why Did It Go So Wrong?, Chris Gilliard — Surveillance technology always ‘finds its level.’… That it may serve additional functions is somewhat beside the point. Surveillance systems, no matter their origin, will always exist to serve power.”
America’s High-Tech Surveillance Could Track Abortion-Seekers, Too, Activists Warn, Rebecca Chowdhury — “‘The same state that is trying to deport me would also force me to be pregnant even if I didn’t decide to create a family.’”
Deconfiguring the Security State, James Kilgore & Malika Devich-Cyril — “‘Abolition, at its heart, is the deconfiguration of a security state. And digital technologies now mediate the security state. In order for us to be true abolitionists in the 21st century, we have to be digital abolitionists.’”
Yesterday, I participated in a RightsCon panel titled "Big Tech's Muzzle on Muslims” where panelists discussed tech’s role in the global War on Terror. From Google’s cozy relationship with the Pentagon to Palantir’s infamous data-mining for ICE, companies of all sizes have been instrumental to and profited from the War on Terror’s ongoing development. But regardless of who are the explicit targets of these platforms, partnerships, and technologies, their actions fall under anti-Black Islamophobic-driven surveillance.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the hyper-focus on “watching” in surveillance conversations. My thoughts were first prompted by a March tweet from J. Khadijah Abdurahman about how the overdetermination of Michel Foucault’s panopticon in surveillance studies “makes tech’s re-inscription of racial regimes a question of sight”. However, it’s also influenced by my increased bitching about counter-extremism across platforms.
As I prepared for yesterday’s panel, I reflected on one I did for Queer Crescent on Monday about surveillance and bodily autonomy (within the context of Roe’s impending overturn). During it, I was asked about how anti-Blackness and Islamophobia function through the surveillance of bodies. I remarked that whether it is an actual human eye or a digital mimic, watching can certainly be part of surveillance. That has never been its entire formation, though, and as digital technologies grow states are given increased opportunities for methods of control beyond watching.
Yes, Muslims have been explicitly surveilled online.
In 2018, I reported on American Civil Liberties Union documents showing the Boston Police Department’s Regional Intelligence Center’s use of Geofeedia, a surveillance system, in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The BDP monitored hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter, some basic Arabic, and words associated with political action, such as protest.
I’m not denying that watching or its harms. But to nobody’s surprise, I’ve been thinking about the hyper-focus on watching within the specific context of counter-extremism. While preparing my RightsCon comments, I tweeted that (big) tech’s role in Islamophobia extends far beyond Muslims being explicitly watched but includes its collaboration with counter-extremism overall.
Following white supremacist attacks like the Buffalo shooting, there are increased demands to address disinformation on social media. One day, I’ll write in-depth about how mainstream efforts to combat disinformation are dictated by counter-extremism and national security logics (editors, commission me). But as I tweeted: When tech companies address white supremacy online as a disinformation problem, they use counter-extremism frameworks that function through anti-Black Islamophobia.
One clear example of this came from Meta (Facebook) following the Christchurch massacre. In Sept. 2019, Meta announced its partnership with Moonshot CVE (now Moonshot) to combat “hate and extremism”. With Moonshot’s “data-driven approach to disrupting violent extremism”, Meta wrote that it will be able to “connect people with information and services to help them leave hate and extremism behind.”
If you look up Moonshot today, the company describes itself as a “tech-driven solutions provider harnessing the power of the internet for good.” Through its focus on ending “online harms” (a worryingly ambiguous category), Moonshot claims that it “protects vulnerable audiences online.”
That might all sound cute.
However, Facebook’s partnership with Moonshot in response to an Islamophobic massacre provided legitimacy to counter-extremism logics built on the ongoing surveillance and traumatization of Muslim communities. As I previously reported, part of Moonshot’s data-driven approach included its development of Digital Shepherds, a program “automat[ing] the process of identifying individuals at risk of radicalization”, in partnership with the United Kingdom’s Home Office.
This is the same Home Office claiming that the UK’s counter-extremism program, Prevent, has been “instrumental in turning people’s lives around… and keeping our communities safe”. But in March, I covered the People’s Review of Prevent which honed in on Prevent’s facilitation of Muslim children’s abuse by bringing them “under an extraordinarily extensive net of surveillance.”
Layla Aitlhadj, the report’s co-author and director of the UK’s Prevent Watch told NAZAR, that young children “are fearful, mistrustful, and even traumatized by what they have been through.” In addition, Prevent Watch has recorded incidents of “bed-wetting, the development of OCD, and also greater than average mistrust of authority.”
Rather than going on for ages, I’ll wrap up this essay with a reminder: Anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, and all of their intersections, undergird digital technologies — including the internet. Our communities do not have to be explicit targets of an individual program or technology for those harms to manifest. So even when tech companies claim to take action or exist for the benefit of oppressed communities, including Muslims, most propagate anti-Black Islamophobia’s violence like a mushroom expelling its spores.