When I began organizing in earnest to defend the internet in 2009, my efforts were driven by the great promise that an open internet without corporate gatekeepers would, in time, level the playing field for all speech. My hope was further inspired by the role social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook played in aiding and giving international voice to the Arab Spring movement. Just a few years later, Occupy Wall Street also used social media as a means to bypass an exclusive and elitist mainstream media to amplify stories of economic inequity, branding the phrase “We are the 99 percent.” Then, in 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter emerged on Twitter, giving national and international voice to a growing movement for Black lives and against unchecked, systemic police violence.
By allowing ordinary people to share ideas, pressure targets directly, and catalyze and coordinate broader social movements across geographies, social media has played an important role in defending human rights. But, as I quickly learned, without adequate mechanisms to protect the speech of those historically discriminated against and excluded by all vehicles of modern voice—from school and universities to the ballot box, to media publishers and platforms—the marketplace of ideas ends up just like the actual marketplace, rigged to protect the speech of those already in power.
For instance, both the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 were flooded with disinformation aimed explicitly at limiting the voting rights and political power of Black and Latino voters. The differing levels of police aggression against the seditious mob that recently attacked the Capitol versus the largely peaceful anti-racist protesters in almost every US city demonstrates a racialized double standard in freedom of assembly. Black communities don’t enjoy a free and fair press either: Eighty-three percent of newsroom staff are white. Racial disparities in media publishing have left the internet as a singular alternative for Black voices. But when the internet is riddled with racism, Black speech becomes a canary in a digital coal mine.
Meanwhile, white supremacists of all kinds have historically enjoyed unfettered access to the means and mechanisms of speech. This is as true in a digital age as it has ever been. A 2017 Pew study found that one in four Black Americans have been threatened or harassed online because of their race or ethnicity. With Black and indigenous women killed in America more than any other race, the confluence of digital and real world racial and gendered violence is undeniable, at least by those who directly experience it.
As an early member of the Black Lives Matter Global Network in the Bay Area, I was among the leaders responsible for managing several BLM Facebook pages, and I witnessed the inequity first hand. I spent hours each day from 2014 until 2017 removing violent racial and gendered harassment, explicitly racist anti-Black language, and even threats to maim and murder Black activists. At that time, getting these posts removed was extremely difficult. There were no feedback mechanisms outside of users flagging posts themselves. And if the content management system, algorithmic or human, didn’t agree with your interpretation, the post stayed. As a result, Black activists like me managing Facebook pages were left with only one option: combing through each and every comment to remove the thousands that threatened Black people, at great personal detriment.
In a digital age where much mobilization happens online, the constant drum beat of racist harassment and threats, of doxxing and ridicule, is reminiscent of the earlier days of civil rights organizing. My body remains intact, but my spirit is scarred.
In this context, an absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment—that all speech is equal, that the internet is a sufficiently democratizing force, and that the remedy for harmful speech is more speech—willfully and callously ignores that all speech is not treated equally. A digital divide and algorithmic injustice has fractured the internet, and, together with the racial exclusion of mainstream media, has turned the remedy of more speech into a false solution. Ultimately, this harms Black communities, leaders, organizations, and movements. In a digital age, we need to deploy real mechanisms that protect the First Amendment rights of Black and brown people.