Harmful and manipulative media is nothing new to generations of Black and Brown people in the United States. The history of racist propaganda in the media stretches back two centuries.
What’s uniquely harmful today is how online platforms siphon up massive amounts of our personal data and then use the information to target ads, recommendations, and other content based on our perceived interests and vulnerabilities.
Even worse, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and authoritarian leaders have learned how to exploit this system, and there’s little standing in the way to stop them.
Tech companies like Facebook and Google have not invested enough in content moderation to catch and remove vile content, especially in Spanish and other non-English languages. COVID-19 and vaccine conspiracy theories proliferate through social media, exacerbating the public health crisis.
The Markup’s Citizen Browser project found that Latinos and all other groups of color were far less likely to see COVID-related public service announcements from the Department of Health and Human Services than white users. Discriminatory housing ads have targeted users based on their location and other identity markers. Voter suppression campaigns online, aimed at Black and Brown users, were far less likely to be removed by the social media companies who ran them.
Social media content even discouraged Latinos from participating in the 2020 U.S. Census.
Facebook, Instagram, What’sApp, YouTube, Twitter, Next Door and other social media platforms know that our personal information is used against us by people who want to cause us harm. But they have refused to protect us, since doing so would reduce their profit margins—which is n open secret about tech platforms, and a national disgrace.
Many of the top executives of our nation’s wealthiest corporations have brazenly and routinely lied to or withheld the full truth from civil rights leaders, researchers, federal lawmakers in the U.S House and Senate, as well as the American public. This simply cannot stand.
Social media platforms have a lot of cleanup work to do, some more than others.
Facebook, for example, only flags 30 percent of misinformation in Spanish with warning labels—even more shocking when compared to the 70 percent of English-language misinformation the tech giant claims to flag. The company allowed Trump’s campaign to run over 2,000 ads pushing the idea of an “invasion” at the southern border, language echoed by the El Paso mass shooter who in a 2019 attack murdered 23 people and injured 23 more. And Facebook’s policies against COVID-19 vaccine disinformation weren’t used to stop baseless Spanish-language posts claiming that the life-saving shots could cause infertility, cancer, and mad cow disease.
At the end of 2021, Free Press Action and our allies in the Disinfo Defense League released a policy platform designed to rein in these abuses. Our main proposal for Congress is to adopt a comprehensive privacy and civil rights bill that would increase transparency, limit technology platforms’ collection and use of personal information, prevent discrimination by their algorithms, and introduce much-needed government oversight.
We’re tracking legislative efforts to ensure they strike the right balance to protect digital-civil rights and free expression, too.
Together we must tell Congress to pass the Algorithmic Justice and Online Transparency Act and the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act to limit tech giants from accessing user demographics and recording online behavior—specific information which enables the algorithm to transmit hate and lies in ways that can most precisely inflict high degrees of harm on Latinos and other people of color.
We must also urge the Federal Trade Commission to take a closer look at how our demographic and behavioral data is used to target us for discrimination.
And while congressional action is urgent, tech companies have a responsibility too. They must invest more to rid their platforms of bigotry and lies across languages.
The truth is that robots, algorithms, and auto-translation simply can’t keep up with the ever-evolving language of hate and misinformation. Every major social media platform should adopt the Change the Terms coalition’s model corporate policies to disrupt hate, appoint an executive-level manager to oversee Spanish-language content moderation policy and enforcement in the U.S., hire far more human moderators, audit Spanish-language and other non-English content moderation, and provide more transparency into how they work.
Tech companies are undermining public safety, civil and human rights, and our democracy—and they’re doing so by extracting and exploiting our personal data. Now is the time for lawmakers and regulators to act.
Jessica J. González is the co-CEO of Free Press and co-founder of Change the Terms. Twitter: @JGo4Justice