"Algorithm's of Oppression"

Updated: Mar 2

Image of TikTok creator Khaby Lame in an article titled, Forbes' 'Top-Earning TikTok-ers 2022' List Contains Zero Black Creators; The numbers aren't adding up.

Screenshot taken from article on bet.com.

When we see articles like this published sadly, unfortunately, and as infuriating as it is - the majority of us are not surprised.

Furthermore, when we do see articles like this, we’re reminded of the movements of Black TikTok creators going on strike to protest the continuous lack of credit for their work.

One example that many may remember in 2019 is when a Black TikTok creator, Jalaiah Harmon choreographed a dance, "The Original Renegade." The dance was quickly picked up by several TikTok creators who went viral for performing the dance and even received opportunities including an invitation to the NBA All-Star weekend to teach NBA cheerleaders the choreograph to the dance. However, when Harmon commented and asked for credit, many TikTok creators ignored her and continued to profit off of her work.

Several Black TikTok creators are (rightfully so) fed up with the lack of credit received for their work which has led to strikes and protests of the app. One example is when Black TikTok creator, Erick Louis posted a video in 2021, seemingly about to introduce a new dance and flips the script as text quickly appears on screen that reads, "Sike. This app would be nothing without Black people."

Black TikTok creators have protested the handling of their content for some time now. Either because it be that they aren't receiving rightful credit where credit is due or because the platform is purposely suppressing their content. In 2019, TikTok admitted their moderators were trained to suppress content by users “vulnerable to cyberbullying,” a designation that included disabled, fat, and queer creators.

And because we continuously see incidents like this occur, we are forced to point out research conducted by Ruha Benajmin in Race After Technology and specifically the term coined, the New Jim Code.

The New Jim Code is the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective and progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era (pg. 6, Race After Technology).

An important aspect to understanding the New Jim Code comes from, Safiya Umoja Noble’s book in, Algorithms of Oppression, in that “understanding algorithmic oppression is to understand that mathematical formulations to drive automated decisions are made by human beings (pg. 1, Algorithms of Oppression).

Benjamin also argues that, "bias enters through the backdoor of design optimization in which the humans who create the algorithms are hidden from view (pg. 11, Race After Technology).

One example that Benjamin offers is that of the Shirley Cards produced by Kodak from 1950 to 1990s.

Image of a woman as a model for Shirley Cards, used from 1950 to 1990s as a standard for the film development process.

Screenshot taken from search results in Google search images.

The Shirley Cards were part of the film exposure methods used to develop film photography using an image of a White woman as the example to standardize the process. Thus, because the image of a White woman was used as the norm for the development process, darker skinned people would consistently be underexposed in photographs. Benjamin states, "as one photographer recently put it, 'It turns out, film stock's failures to capture dark skin aren't a technical issue, they're a choice.' This also implies we can choose otherwise" (pg. 104, Race After Technology).

And although many photographers and parents of Black children began objecting to the fact that their children's faces were blurry in yearbook photos as compared to the White students, the "photographic industry did not fully take notice until companies that manufactured brown products like chocolate and wooden furniture began complaining that photographs did not depict their goods with enough subtlety" (pg. 105, Race After Technology).

As danah boyd and M.C. Elish of the Data & Society Research Institute put it, “the datasets and models used in these systems are not objective representations of reality. They are the culmination of particular tools, people, and power structures that foreground one way of seeing or judging over another" (pg. 11, Race After Technology).

"Glitches" in technology:

During the summer of 2020, TikTok seemed to be blocking hashtags related to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests; the company apologized, blaming a “technical glitch.”

However, in Algorithms of Oppression, Noble explains, “stories of 'glitches' found in systems do not suggest that the organizing logics of the web could be broken but, rather, that these are occasional one-off moments when something goes terribly wrong with near-perfect systems.

And that these data aberrations have come to light in various forms. For example, in 2015, U.S. News and World Report reported that a “glitch” in Google’s algorithm led to a number of problems through auto-tagging and facial-recognition software that was apparently intended to help people search through images more successfully” (pg. 6).

One example, and major issue was in 2016 as Google search results when searching the keyword, "gorilla" presented images of Black people in search results.

Screenshots taken from search results in Google search images.

The company quickly apologized and promised to fix the "glitch."

Google Maps search results show the White House when searching the word "N*****."

Another example involved Google Maps, when searching the word "N*****" presented a map to the White House during Obama's presidency.

Screenshot taken from search results in Google search images.

We must become aware that these incidences are not coincidental or mere "glitches" in technology. Rather, they are only a few examples illustrating how bias and straight-up racism is encoded into the algorithms that we use on a daily basis.

As Noble puts it, “.....in other words, traditional misrepresentations in old media are made real once again online and situated in an authoritative mechanism that is trusted by the public – Google" (pg. 3, Algorithms of Oppression).

And as Noble points out, Google "is trusted by the public," as majority of us do turn to Google to search for information and many of us are satisfied with the first answer that we are presented with in search results. And without digging further to look for more information, we may very well be presented with misinformation or confirmation bias.

And we are able to understand and make these connections as we know that these algorithms can be inherently racist as they are created and designed by human beings. Furthermore, the algorithms are updated on the basis of our own behavior. Meaning, developers update algorithms based on the patterns that they observe when people use online tools like Google to search.

Therefore, when it comes to search engines like Google, when can confidently state that these online tools reproduce the biases that persist in our society.

"Racism thus becomes doubled – magnified and buried under layers of digital denial" (pg. 12, Race After Technology).

Therefore, when we see articles such as, There Are No Black TikTok Creators on Forbes' Highest Earners List, again as infuriating as it is - because of research presented by people including Ruha Benjamin and Safiya Umoja Noble, we cannot be surprised. Research such as this shows us that just as in society, online tools, apps, and platforms also prove that Black people and POC stand at a disadvantage.

For more, check out our TikTok on this topic and be sure to share it with others to continue to keep this important conversation going.

Adriana Leos; Chief Creative Officer of Our Mindful Marketing

written by:

Adriana Leos

Chief Creative Officer


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