ALT Anti-racism keynote

ALT Anti-racism keynote

An important session about anti-racism during the 2021 September ALT conference was the keynote speech given by Mutake Nkonde about how algorithms can reinforce the lack of equality amongst creators from different backgrounds. She began by referencing the paper she wrote in 2019 about why algorithms are deceiving.  

The technologies that we use, which we find to be fair and accurate because they are made using maths and statistics still end up making decisions which perpetuate racist ideas which affect BAME communities in real time. To create meaningful anti-racism policies in technology, Nkonde anchored her work within the framework of racial literacy in technology. This framework covers three elements which interact to demonstrate the impact of race in technology.  

Firstly, there is the cognitive element. This explores the concept that technologies are more than maths and physics equations because they take on meanings of race. Secondly, the emotional element of this framework refers to the fact that anti-racism policies take time because people are unwilling and uncomfortable to have open conversations about the role of racism in technology. Finally, there is the ‘action-plan’ element which seeks to implement effective policies and practice which will reduce the harmful impact of how technology perpetuates harmful notions first created through racism.  

Nkonde then applies the framework to a case study about two Tik Tok creators- one named Sydney Rae who is black and the original creator of a dance and the second named Addison Rae who is white and copies the dance. Nkdone uses this case study to highlight that the algorithm of tiktok is does not consider research which shows black women are deemed less desirable online and therefore digital platforms end up promoting white creators more than black creators.  

So, despite Sydney choreographing the original dance, Addison gained millions of views from copying it and received more of a social media following. Subsequently this led to more business deals for Addison who is now worth an estimated $5 million from a combination of a Netflix movie release, a skincare line, brand sponsorships and appearances on popular chat shows such as Jimmy Fallon.  

Even as a starting point, Addison was paid $7000 for a single video of her dancing while Sydney the original choreographer was paid only $700. These differences in marketing and digital platforms promoting creators from different backgrounds end up amounting to a real difference in career opportunities and exposure which further reinforces the lack of power which impacts BAME communities.  

By critically analysing this case study through the previously mentioned racial literacy in tech framework, Nkonde ended her keynote with a range of observations. She highlighted that staff working for platforms such as Tik Tok must remember 1) how a piece of content was originally created and 2) what impact it has on the creator.  

Ultimately, she recognised that Tik Tok was a business looking to optimise engagement, but the issue is the assumption that algorithms used on tik tok are neutral since they use logic and equations when they are situated in a wider socio-political context which values white creators more than creators of colour.  

Tackling this issue will need a coordinated effort between platform users, creators, board members and a wider conversation about race and technology. Ultimately this is not just a race issue- disability, gender, culture, age are all affected- so how can algorithms be optimised for justice and fairness? 

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