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What Are Data Capitalism and Algorithmic Racism?

Amy Traub

Big data and algorithms are used to reinforce racist economic power throughout our society, but Black and brown communities are fighting back.

“Big Data is…an ideological regime about how decisions are made and who makes them. It has given legitimacy to a new form of social and political control that has taken the digital artifacts of our existence and found new ways to use them against us.”  —Yeshimabeit Milner, Founder and CEO, Data for Black Lives

Data is power, and communities are pushing back against the corporate profiteering from big data, surveillance and automated decisions that increases inequality[.]

On May 19, Data for Black Lives and Demos welcomed activists, scholars, and public servants to a fiery exploration of data capitalism and algorithmic racism. Led by moderator Yeshimabeit Milner of Data for Black Lives (D4BL), the panel exposed the ways that big data and algorithms are used to reinforce racist economic power throughout our society and demonstrated the many ways that Black and brown communities are fighting back.

The webinar launched a new report co-authored by Milner and myself and brilliantly illustrated by Demos’ David Perrin, and introduced a powerful introductory website created by D4BL’s Akina Younge and a team of designers. The report, panel discussion, and microsite had a single message: Data is power, and communities are pushing back against the corporate profiteering from big data, surveillance, and automated decisions that increase inequality along lines of race, class, gender, and disability. “We can,” Milner asserted, “create a whole new blueprint where we are able to reclaim data as protest, data as power, data as accountability.” As the panel began, Milner connected contemporary data and surveillance practices to chattel slavery and described the origins of her call to Abolish Big Data.

Surveillance in Policing

Panelist Tracey Corder, Deputy Campaign Director at the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) spoke about the role of surveillance in policing, highlighting her organization’s recent study, 21st Century Policing: The Rise and Reach of Surveillance Technology. Demands to defund the police, Corder explained, cannot simply mean replacing expensive officers with cheaper surveillance cameras, but must entail a real shift in power. She also emphasized the spread of Amazon’s Ring doorbells, recently revealed to be the nation’s largest surveillance network, which feed surveillance data directly to police departments. “Companies that are collaborating with police are not doing so because they are concerned with our public safety,” Corder pointed out. “Amazon is not concerned with our public safety. Motorola is not concerned with our public safety. They are doing it because they are concerned with profit.” Corder shared ACRE’s work as part of The People’s Coalition for Safety & Freedom and the Crescendo campaign, which takes on Anti-Muslim corporations, as key opportunities to fight back.

Amazon and Data Capitalism in the Workplace

Chris Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse employee who is now striving to organize an Amazon workers’ union, spoke from the frontlines of the fight against data capitalism in the workplace, addressing the panel from a car parked outside an Amazon facility. Smalls highlighted the deep and potentially deadly imbalance in power between Amazon’s control of worker data and the information it lets workers themselves access. Although Amazon keeps its workers under constant surveillance, Smalls explained, “I was fired when I raised concerns right here at this same facility, protesting for the health and safety of my coworkers after management told me not to tell employees in my department that people were testing positive [for COVID-19].” While Amazon uses worker surveillance to power its Time off Task (TOT) tracking system, tracing a worker's movements as they take breaks or shift between tasks and automatically penalizing workers who take too long to rest, pray, or use the restroom, Smalls affirmed that the company was unwilling to share the most basic COVID exposure data that could protect workers and their loved ones.

To fight Amazon’s power over workers, Smalls called on political leaders to pass the PRO Act, which would restore workers’ freedom to form unions. Smalls urged the public to support workers’ organizing and spend money at local businesses rather than Amazon.

Social Media Companies’ Role in Suppression and Intimidation

Erin Shields, national field organizer for the nonprofit MediaJustice, addressed the ways that social media companies allow voter suppression and intimidation to thrive, profiting from the spread of hate speech and recruitment by racist and violent organizations. “Corporations like Facebook and YouTube [owned by Google], are able to essentially stalk you around the internet, and send you deeper into violent rabbit-holed content. That ends up radicalizing people into violence. The effects of that are tangible for our communities… It also means that disinformation is able to thrive on the platform.” Shields shouted out the Change the Terms coalition and its work to push tech companies to combat hate on their platforms. She also lifted up the Athena coalition and its work with MediaJustice on the #EyesOnAmazon campaign, targeting the company’s sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement.

Data Capitalism in the Consumer Marketplace

As a panelist, I spoke about the consumer marketplace, describing how supposedly “neutral” algorithms reproduce racist economic outcomes. I started with a less technically advanced form of algorithm: the credit score. Good credit is a gatekeeper for economic opportunity, yet credit scores are based on secret algorithms about consumers’ borrowing and repayment behavior, which is shaped by factors including wealth, geography, and job opportunities, that are deeply influenced by a history of systemic racism. As a result, credit reporting worsens inequality. I made the case for a world where debt and borrowing are less vital to daily existence—where access to health care, housing, and higher education do not require taking on debt—yet argued that as long as borrowing persists, the public—not for-profit companies—must control credit infrastructure and data more broadly.

What's Next

The Data Capitalism project inaugurates Demos’ new body of work around economic democracy, which will focus on how Black and brown communities can build and exercise power over economic decisions that impact their lives.

I am grateful to Yeshimabeit Milner, to her team at Data for Black Lives, to my coworkers at Demos, and to my fellow panelists for contributing to this powerful event and for their work to expose the harms of data capitalism and build the power necessary to create a more just world.

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