Safiya Noble, a professor from the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and author of the book Algorithms of Oppression, joins Aja for a chat about how we can reckon with technology and reclaim our mental wellbeing in online spaces.
[00:00:00] Aja Monet: Hello listeners. Thank you so much for being here. My name is Aja Monet and I'm a blues surrealist poet and organizer, a dreamer, a liver, a lover. I'm here, present now with you all. I will be your host for this show, The Sound Bath, a podcast brought to you by Lush Cosmetics, where you'll be hearing conversations that cleanse. This is the perfect show to listen to while you're soaking in the bath. So sit back, relax, learn, and be sure to stick around to the end for a beautiful sonic meditation. What's really important about this podcast for me, is sharing with you all how critical, how crucial conversations have been in my life and why I think we need them now more than ever.
Lush is a company that has made a commitment to step away from a number of major social media platforms coming down on the side of they do more harm than good. So to kick off this series on this episode, we're taking a closer look at social media and its impact on our wellness, our mental health, our relationships, and we're actually going to go deep into conversations with people in real time.
I hope that this podcast can be a prompt to activate your inner life around you, in your environment, in your community and in your society day-to-day.
Yeah. Let me introduce Safiya.
[00:01:50] Safiya Noble: I am Safiya Noble, a professor at UCLA of Gender Studies and African American Studies, and I direct the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, which is a Black feminist outpost for people who are interested in doing research at the intersection of race, gender, technology, and society. I go by she/her/hers.
[00:02:18] Aja Monet: She's the author of a book called Algorithms of Oppression, which examines racist and sexist algorithmic bias in commercial search engines. Safiya speaks from a deep understanding about how the digital systems we take for granted are actually harming us.
[00:02:33] Safiya Noble: Yeah, I'm a person in the world who really cares deeply. And I'm excited to be here with you today.
[00:02:40] Aja Monet: Hmm.
The whole purpose of beginning this podcast is to get us to tune in with one another about the ways that social media has actually disconnected us from each other.
[00:02:56] Safiya Noble: Because a lot of people care about the way in which the internet is harming our communities and there is a lot of positive, but there is not enough attention on the harm. And for me, that's the place where I feel like if we can shine a light there, we could actually change what's happening in the world.
And that just seems so urgent and necessary right now.
[00:03:23] Aja Monet: Hi girl.
[00:03:24] Safiya Noble: How are you?
[00:03:28] Aja Monet: Good. I'm good. Life, you know, we're out here living, still.
[00:03:32] Safiya Noble: A whole- ass pandemic. I know.
[00:03:33] Aja Monet: Yeah, I mean, I’m grateful as one can be, you know, we could all be complaining, but as much as we want to, we also have to think about what we have to be grateful for. Today, I am so grateful to be in conversation with you.
This is such an honor for me to have you Safiya, one of the questions I wanted to start with is: who are you when no one's looking? Who are you and maybe what are you doing when you feel your most “you”.
[00:04:03] Safiya Noble: I think I am tremendously funny. And my husband is a total hater because he thinks that he's the funny one and I'm not, but truly when I feel most free, I am laughing first and foremost and having fun. And I'm an empath, and so probably at my most vulnerable, I am a person who is always working through kind of integrating what is happening in the world and integrating that into my body and trying to kind of be at peace with hard things in the world, hard things in my life. And I think at my best, I am there for others and that's a place that I just try to live in, a space that I try to live in. I'm learning and emerging from a long winter of self-criticism and self-doubt, and so I'm still learning how to love myself and give myself the grace that I think I extend to others maybe more freely than I have extended to myself.
[00:05:26] Aja Monet: Yeah, I'm right there witcha, sister. We both recovering from that long winter of self-doubt.
How would you define or describe Algorithms of Oppression for someone who is listening in and has not read your work?
[00:05:45] Safiya Noble: Algorithms are part of the everyday vernacular that a lot of people are using. So they're like, you know, “What's your algorithm for happiness?”. And people really use it is so poetically now in our culture to really say, “What's the magic that you use?” or, “What's the course that you chart in your life?”. But when I was writing about this in the book, I was trying to say, no, truly there's computer programming that happens out of Silicon Valley and other silicon corridors that is racist or sexist or discriminatory. And we should be looking at the computer code that generates all kinds of disparate impact and negative outcomes, especially for people of color on the internet.
And now I think people are much more aware. For example, people who use social media, and especially people who are creators in social media, are very astute about how algorithms are designed in platforms like TikTok, or Instagram, Twitter, Facebook to suppress certain ideas, and politics and people. So, we have a much clearer understanding that it's not simply a free speech zone that we enter, where all voices are equal and all content is equal and everybody has the same chance of being seen.
We actually understand now that there are algorithms that are designed to boost what is most profitable, what is most likely to be shared and most likely to go viral and be seen and to suppress different kinds of speech from different parts of the world.
And the book Algorithms of Oppression was really one of the first books to help make this legible.
[00:07:46] Aja Monet: Yeah, thank you for that.
I know that part of the discussion is around what does it look like to actually make these spaces more equitable and more inclusive? And how do we have more Black people on staff and working in Silicon Valley? And you know, a lot of the conversations when we're talking like justice or equity, it leads to how do we create more jobs for Black people to be in certain positions.
And while that is something that I find important, I wonder how does that actually shift the material conditions of the mass amounts of people who are experiencing the ramifications of this issue? So I wonder, what is the role of fighting to be included, but then also knowing when to actually disengage from the entirety of the problem, how do you deal with that struggle and that balance?
[00:08:46] Safiya Noble: I really love this question because I think that one of the things that's been a challenge, quite frankly, to me is that there is always this impulse, which is if we just get more representation in these companies, if we just have more Black engineers, if we just get Black girls to code, you know, if we just somehow get incorporated better, we will solve the problems.
And you know this is, quite frankly now I'm going to probably get controversial for some people—
[00:09:18] Aja Monet: Please do.
[00:09:19] Safiya Noble: Okay. This for me, this is a very traditional civil rights orientation to social change, which on one hand is incredibly important for sure. Black children need to go to schools that are equally resourced as white children in the United States and without the kind of structural intervention and change around who gets access to resources, including the resources of Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach and all of these places, we will continue to be woefully left outside of the pathways to opportunity.
There's no question about those kinds of interventions. Like these are what I think of as like the very traditional rights-based orientations that tend to focus on individual participation, individual access. And there's also a dimension of thinking about Black power that is about structural change that is more powerful. So we're in a moment where everyone is responding to things like technology discrimination by saying, “We should get more Black people working in Silicon Valley”. Sure. Okay. But the truth is, as long as we have systems that are profoundly implicated in the rollback of civil rights, human rights, sovereign rights, like the tech sector is profoundly implicated in, you will not be able to remedy what happens to hundreds of millions of people in this country and around the world through Black people sitting on the board of Facebook. It's a mismatch, it's apples and oranges.
So you have to actually think about, sure, maybe one or two people at the level of the Board of Directors can be some type of social conscience, that is not going to substantively change the way in which Facebook is deeply implicated in genocide in organizing white supremacist violence in the United States and in Europe, in organizing communities against women's rights to control their bodies, in the rollback of our ability to talk about racism which of course we now have, I think, something like over 20 different states that are entertaining or passing anti-critical race theory laws. And no amount of representation is going to change that because they are agnostic about taking responsibility for differentiating between information or knowledge and racist propaganda.
So, I think that we have to imagine that this moment that we're living in is a moment where profound structural shifts are being made. We are moving into an era where all data, all kinds of information is being collected on publics all over the world, being put into systems where we are being sorted into haves and have nots.
You know, I often joke with my little sister, one of my dearest friends, that you know, what do they think we're going to do, sit around and watch videos of other people eating food? And of course she's like a millennial, so she's like, “I actually do that. ”And I'm like, I can't handle you. You have to stop talking to me.”
But you know, this idea that we are going to somehow trade real material security in this world for a pop-up experience, or we're going to trade access to education and college and these kinds of spaces where we can imagine amazing, beautiful futures—we’re going to trade that to convince ourselves that it doesn't matter. It’s like free because we can Google it.
Like this is to me, the kinds of options that are being put before the public without our consent that are moving us into more and more predictive scenarios. And so, we will be living in a world, if we do not intervene, where data that's collected from you, from your parents, from social media, from the GPS, the phone in your pocket, all the things, the listening devices will be fed into systems that overdetermine who will win and who will lose. And I think this is a frightening moment, quite frankly, where we have to intervene on these systems. And this is again, more complicated and more difficult to attend to than getting more representation in a company. And so people, I think, default to the easier win of more representation, because taking on the way in which society is being transformed, feels really overwhelming and feels difficult.
But we should remember it is not going to be that difficult. We can, indeed people are organizing to abolish many different kinds of dangerous technologies that are creeping into our communities, and we should be energized and working together to say, “Enough is enough. We're not going down those paths or we're going to roll those things back.”
[00:14:47] Aja Monet: Hmm. Do you see a grand mass organized exodus as part of a solution?
[00:14:54] Safiya Noble: Yeah, I actually do. And part of the reason I do is because I study other movements and other moments in time where we have had paradigm shifts. And I think about this in my own life. I mean, I'm a classic poster child for Gen-X. Like, just everything sucks and everyone sucks and you just left us with some bullshit, you know what I mean, to kinda contend with.
And I remember growing up in the seventies and eighties when things like smoking were constantly pushed on us and the generations before. I mean, they saw the studies that were funded by the tobacco industry. And then there was finally a massive settlement with the tobacco industry, a massive lawsuit for its harm to the public.
And that caused a pretty significant cultural shift in the United States. Now, we have to learn from those kinds of moments and also see the way in which social media and tech companies will reinvent their products in much the way that the tobacco industry reinvented their products. You know, we have to be mindful and watch and stay diligent, but for sure, the era we live in now around smoking is not the same as the era that people who grew up in the fifties experienced.
So, yes, I do believe that we can create change and we can raise awareness and that there have to be consequences and accountability for these predatory companies, just as there were consequences and accountability to the tobacco industry. There’s been consequences to Big Pharma, pharmaceutical companies who preyed upon the public during the opioid crisis. But we look at these other industries and moments in time, and we should know that the abolitionist stance that people took about the predatory nature of those industries that people have won, and they have fought back, and we are powerful and we can do that with the tech industry too.
[00:17:02] Aja Monet: Hmm.
If we could, if we could commit to one day of everybody off each device, I feel like people could really see their power and a lot would shift in a collective action made like that. So I don't know what we gotta do to make it happen, but hopefully at some point, the thought starts to even be entertained in people's minds.
[00:17:29] Safiya Noble: Well, you know, let me just say one thing about that. I mean, I think that there have been movements to quit Facebook and these different kinds of efforts and part of the reason why those are not successful is because people now can't get news in most parts of the world unless they go onto a platform like Facebook.
So, we have to kind of put intention the desire to maybe leave spaces that are exploiting us like Facebook, I mean we could name many companies, and the demand that we must make for alternatives. You know, at the moment that we were living these last two years through the acute crisis of COVID-19, we saw the tech sector was the only industry that was like printing money, hand over fist.
And that to me is actually where we need to focus. So, one way we could see remedies is not just getting off and logging off of those platforms. One place is we could demand that these companies must pay taxes and invest in the same systems that we're invested in. And that alone would create such a surplus of revenue that would shore up all of these other systems that we need to have a high quality of life.
It would shore up public media, it would shore up public health. It would help us to have, you know, a national healthcare where you don't have to just be employed in order to have healthcare. You would not be so vulnerable and precarious. I mean, that to me is like the structural kinds of change that would make a huge difference.
And that means young people who aren't voting need to get registered, need to vote, need to go out and take over these systems. We cannot just keep letting people who are bought and paid for by corporations run the government, run these systems.
[00:19:34] Aja Monet: I wanted to ask you a question about, you know, there's this conversation around mental health. Black women have done something remarkable with social media in terms of galvanizing interest and attraction and awareness and advocacy around issues and yet there's limitations there, there are Black women who are neglecting their mental health and their everyday lives.
And so I wonder, do you see, have you heard of, are you a part of any efforts by the technology community to start to implement policies and structural changes to prepare the public for the ramifications of social media on our health?
[00:20:12] Safiya Noble: I think the foremost scholar in this area is Dr. Tiera Tanksley, who in her studies of college-aged Black women who feel compelled to go in and address the harmful lies, the propaganda, the racism, the sexism that they see in social media, and they spend many hours a day combating, speaking truth to power. And so Black women in her studies are reporting post-traumatic stress disorder. They are talking about how isolated and alienated they feel. They spend hours in the morning before work or before school on the internet, trying to combat the horrible things that they see said about Black people of all types. And then they walk into classrooms or they walk into the job and they are of course engaging with people who are living in a different internet experience. Who are looking at baby pictures and cat photos and videos, and who are not contending with racial violence and racial injustice in their social media feeds.
So Dr. Tanksley’s work is important, it will teach us a lot about how the internet is different experience for different people, and especially for Black people and Black women. For us at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, we are really focused right now on digital civil rights. Black women and Black trans women, LGBTQIA+ communities are the most likely to experience online harassment and trolling. And so, we have started to double down on bringing people together to talk about how we need to organize for digital civil rights, because the frameworks legally do not include what happens on the internet.
I know that Black women, we have a tremendous amount of resilience. All of us who have experienced a flash mob of hate come our way on the internet or open up our emails to hate email and all the things that we experience, I know we have a lot of resilience, but we also do not deserve those experiences and we need to have layers of protection because the consequences are not just an email laying in your inbox. Those pile-ons can have tremendous health consequences, mental health consequences for us. And so, yes, this is an incredibly important area. I'm so grateful that you're bringing and raising attention to it.
And those who are listening, who are interested in this area, of course you can find us at UCLA at the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.
[00:23:01] Aja Monet: Yeah, thank you so much. Everything you shared was so informative and I'm hoping that the listeners are really sitting with the things that you're forcing us to think through. I would also encourage people to know when to walk away. To know when, to really sit with nature, to be present with oneself, to hear one's own voice louder than the other voices that may be falling down your feet or whatever.
I think at the end of the day, we all have some sort of accountability to ourselves and to show up strongly for ourselves so that we can actually be functional, you know, and maybe not even just to be functional, but to be with yo’ self.
[00:23:42] Safiya Noble: Yes, absolutely.
[00:23:44] Aja Monet: You know, this question is about sounds. I want to ask you what sound makes you feel most at peace? Gives you a peace of mind, a calmness, a sense of wellness, a sense of belonging.
[00:24:01] Safiya Noble: I love that question. Of course, I love going to the ocean and I love the sound of the ocean and it reminds me that I’m just one grain of sand on the beach in this world, in this universe. And it is humbling and it reminds me that I'm connected to this world, and yet I am just one of many, and it allows me to kind of release a sense of responsibility for the whole thing, which I think a lot of Black women feel responsible for holding up everything. And there's something about the sound of the ocean that reminds me that there's a whole, whole planet earth that's holding us up. And that makes me feel somehow like I can breathe too, while I do my work, and I can let go of some things.
And that it's not all on me that it's on, you know, that the world we make is a world we make together.
[00:25:13] Aja Monet: Wow. Wow. That was lovely. Thank you so much for joining.
[00:25:17] Safiya Noble: Thank you so much. I feel so honored to get to speak with you and, and to be heard by people who support you, and I'm here for you.
[00:25:26] Aja Monet: Yeah, me too. Ditto. Anything you need, I’m here.
[00:25:28] Safiya Noble: Yes, absolutely.