Connect with us


Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech

12 min read.

In the aftermath of the attacks by a white supremacist on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, led a campaign to remove hate speech from social media platforms. TRACEY NICHOLLS examines the obstacles facing the campaign and offers some solutions to tackling the “dark web”, which is increasingly becoming the incubator of racist and fascist ideologies.



Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech
Download PDFPrint Article

Dateline: CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA), USA, August 11, 2017 – A gathering of self-identified “alt-right” protestors marches through a park in this small college city waving white supremacist and Nazi-affiliated flags, chanting slogans identified with “white power” movements and so-called “Great Replacement” beliefs put forth by Islamophobes (“you will not replace us”) and slogans identified with Nazi ideology (“blood and soil”). In the name of (white) American history, they are protesting the planned removal of a statue of the general who led the army of the Confederate States of America, the Southern separatist movement that took up arms against the American government in the country’s 19th century Civil War (1861-1865). Subsequent protests result in beatings of counter-protestors and one death. Days later, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, notoriously defends the white supremacists by observing that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The organiser of this “Unite the Right” protest is known in Charlottesville for his sustained online harassment campaigns against city councilors who support the removal of racist monuments.

Dateline: CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, March 15, 2019 – An Australian man living in New Zealand attacks worshippers at two different mosques in the city of Christchurch, killing 51 and wounding many others. He is a proponent of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant views of a global “white power” network that disseminates its rhetoric of hate and its narrative of an imperiled white race online, via unregulated spaces within “the dark web” and via encrypted social media apps. His attack on Muslim New Zealanders is met with shock and grief within the country, an outpouring of solidarity that is expressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her immediate response: “They were New Zealanders. They are us.” Of the shooter, whom she consistently refuses to identify by name, she says, “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist…He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.” After the attacks, it becomes clear that he had been announcing his intentions in online forums and had been livestreaming the attack through a Facebook link. New Zealand moved swiftly to criminalise the viewing or sharing of the video of the attack.

Dateline: PARIS, France, May 15, 2019 – Two months after the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands at a lectern in a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron to announce a non-binding agreement dubbed “The Christchurch Call to Action.” The agreement has as its goal the global regulation of violent extremism on the Internet and in social media messaging. Ardern calls upon assembled representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to lead the way towards an online world that is both free and harm-free by enforcing their existing standards and policies about violent and racist content, improving response times involved in removing such content when it is reported, removing accounts responsible for posting content that violates the platform’s standards, making transparent the algorithms that lead searchers to extremist content, and committing to verifiable and measurable reporting of their regulatory efforts. Affirming that the ability to access the Internet is a benefit for all, she also asserts that people experience serious harm when exposed to terrorist and extremist content online, and that we have a right to be shielded from violent hatred and abuse.

Why is this call different from all other calls? 

What action can we expect in the wake of this call? And what consequences might plausibly flow from that action?

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”, the encrypted social messaging platforms that Ardern identifies as in need of regulation. (I put the word “community” in quotes here because the meaning derived from the word’s Latin root [munis/muneris: the word for gift] makes it a darkly ironic way to describe these bands of people: if community is a gift we share with each other, their gift of poisonous hate is one that damages all those with whom it is shared.

Recognising the danger of these groups, as Ardern does, and seeking to neutralise their effects on our online and in-person worlds is important, even urgent. As Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips observes: “It’s not that one of our systems is broken; it’s not even that all of our systems are broken…It’s that all of our systems are working…towards the spread of polluted information and the undermining of democratic participation.”

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”…

The consequences of the way these systems are working are now as clear to New Zealanders in the wake of the Christchurch attacks as they have been to Americans, to Kenyans, to Pakistanis, and to Sri Lankans in the wake of their respective experiences of hate-fuelled terrorism. American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that acts of violent hatred always begin with words, words that normalise and seek to justify the genocides, pogroms, and terror attacks to come. If we do not speak out against those words, she notes, we embolden the speakers in their drive to turn defamatory words into deadly actions.

So the action called for at Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit is warranted. Will it happen? Will the nations who have the ability to exert moral pressure on the companies that created and profit from these online platforms actually force a change in how white supremacist rhetoric is dealt with? Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is quoted in Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief, thinks that “the best case scenario [for] the Call to Action provides the political pressure and support for platforms to increase vigilance in enforcing their terms of service against violent white supremacist networks.”

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users. Back in 2015, for instance, Germany’s then Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Heiko Maas, filed a written complaint with Facebook about its practice of ignoring its own stated standards and policies for dealing with racist posts. Maas pointed out the speed with which Facebook removes photographs (like those posted by breast cancer and mastectomy survivors who seek to destigmatise their bodies) as violations of the platform’s community standards, and the corresponding inattention to user complaints about racist hate speech. A Foreign Policy analysis of Maas’s complaint letter reports that it led to an agreement between German officials and representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter – the very same companies who sent representatives to Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit –on a voluntary code of conduct that included a commitment to more timely removal of hate-filled content. That was in 2015; in Maas’s view, Facebook has subsequently failed to honour the agreement.

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users.

Even at the international/multi-national level at which Ardern’s call is framed, it is not clear how much capability there is to reform the discursive violence inflicted on us by white supremacist digital hate cultures. Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief reports that in the wake of his own visit to the Christchurch mosques that were the scene of white supremacist terror, UN Secretary-General António Guterres committed himself to combatting hate speech.

However, in a talk at the United Nations University in Shibuya (Tokyo) on March 26, 2019, Mike Smith, former Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, was pessimistic about the possibilities for monitoring sites on which people like the Christchurch killer engage in their mutual radicalisation. One could argue with some plausibility that the “soft power” of moral authority, widely acknowledged as one of the UN’s key strengths, should be used to speak out against hate and terror lest its silence on the matter foster a sense of impotence on the part of the international community. However, as Smith made clear, that level of monitoring on the part of international institutions (or national ones for that matter) is not feasible, even assuming there is no other claim on the resources that would be required. The only workable way to implement monitoring of online hate groups is for the tech companies to be doing it themselves and, as Ardern asked for in her Christchurch Call, to be reporting regularly on their efforts to international and national agencies.

What could possibly go wrong?

In considering the question of whether the Christchurch Call does, or can, mark the moment when the world begins to take white supremacist hate speech seriously, we need to consider what we are dealing with in that speech, in that “community”. One American think-piece published in the days following the Christchurch attacks observed that “[r]acism is America’s native form of fascism”, and I think it might be instructive to take that claim seriously. Frequently a carelessly-used and controversial epithet, fascism has been broadly defined as a political worldview in which some of a nation’s people have been given status as persons, as citizens, as lives that matter in a moral hierarchy, and others have had that status denied to them.

Seeing racism as a variant of fascism gives us the resources to understand why online white supremacist hate speech is such an intractable problem. Essayist Natasha Lennard, a theorist of the Occupy movement that erupted in the United States in 2011, insists that “fascism is not a position that is reasoned into; it is a set of perverted desires and tendencies that cannot be broken with reason alone.” Instead, she argues that fascism—which she defines as “far-right, racist nationalism”—must be fought militantly: white supremacists must be exposed, and the inadequately regulated online spaces where their views are promulgated must be shut down. A similar no-tolerance approach to the more mainstream sympathiser sites where these views are legitimised is also warranted as part of anti-fascist (antifa) organising, she thinks. The goal of those who oppose fascism, racism, and white supremacy must be to vociferously reject these views as utterly unacceptable.

The kind of intransigent approach Lennard advocates is precisely the posture that the companies providing these online platforms are so ill-equipped and unwilling to adopt. As Foreign Policy writers Christina Larson and Bharath Ganesh both make clear, social media platforms like Facebook have long cloaked themselves in a rhetoric of utopian connectedness and free speech. Absence of regulation has been pitched to users as the precondition of popular empowerment.

Ganesh points out that there is a real disparity of treatment in the ways online platforms deal with extremist speech: where German minister Heiko Maas charged that Facebook censors photographs involving nudity and leaves hate speech to flourish, Ganesh qualifies that only some speech is left unregulated. Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked. “There is a widespread consensus that the free speech implications of such shutdowns are dwarfed by the need to keep jihadi ideology out of the public sphere,” Ganesh explains. But, “right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and white nationalism…are defended on free speech grounds.”

In part, this is precisely because of the existence of more mainstream sympathiser sites (such as Breitbart, Fox, InfoWars) that ally themselves with right-wing politicians and voters, and defend white supremacists through “dog whistles” (key words and phrases that are meaningful to members of an in-group and innocuous to those on the outside), such that, as Ganesh puts it, this particular “digital hate culture…now exists in a gray area between legitimacy and extremism”. Fearing backlashes, howls of protest about censorship, and reduced revenue streams if users migrate out of their platforms, social media companies have consistently chosen to prioritise these users over the less powerful, less mobilised minority cultures who are undermined by digital hate.

Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked.

In light of this self-serving refusal to apply their own community standards even-handedly, what we are likely to see from social media platforms in response to the Christchurch Call is more legitimising of white supremacy rhetoric that is increasingly entering the mainstream of American discourse, and more policing of already marginalized viewpoints and voices. The most likely result is of their caretaking of this current situation is proliferation of the inconsistent censorship Ganesh identifies, and extension of that censorship to the very groups and users who might be calling out white supremacy. One example of this censorship of anti-racism predating the Christchurch Call involved a group of feminist activists calling themselves “Resisters,” who created an event page on Facebook to promote a 2018 anti-racism rally they planned for the anniversary of the Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville. Facebook removed the page on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to fake accounts they believed to be part of Russian disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the 2018 US mid-term elections.

What then must we do? 

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?” That question is also posed in the Christchurch Call, and in abstraction it is a difficult one. People committed to freedom and to flourishing social worlds want both the right to express themselves and protections against the violence and dehumanisation that hate speech enacts.

Practically speaking, however, we often can draw lines that delineate hate speech from speech that needs to be protected by guarantees of right of expression (often, views from marginalised communities). Ganesh cites Section 130 of the German Criminal Code as an example: in free, democratic Germany, it is nonetheless a criminal offense to engage in anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. The point of this legal prohibition is to disrupt efforts to attack the dignity of marginalised individuals and cultures, which is, Ganesh contends, “what digital hate culture is designed to do.” If our legal remedies begin – as the Christchurch Call asks all remedies to – with basic human rights and basic human dignity as their central concerns, they will not, he thinks, contravene our entitlement to express ourselves.

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?”

Those who fear that any attempt to delineate speech undeserving of protection will slide down a slippery slope into censorship often turn for support to nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stewart Mill’s impassioned argument for the necessity of robustly free speech in his 1859 work On Liberty. However, Mill’s motivation for that argument was his belief that freedom of expression is a key component of human dignity. Free speech does have limits, even for Mill; he articulates those limits in arguably his most famous contribution to Western political theory: the harm principle, which says that limits on an individual’s freedom are only justified to the extent that they prevent harm to others.

Recognising that words have the capacity to trigger action, Mill acknowledges that a society cannot tolerate as protected speech a polemic to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer in which one charges the corn dealer with profiteering at the expense of hungry children and calls for death to corn dealers. Building on this view that incitement to reasonably foreseeable harm or violence warrants restrictions on speech, even the United States, with its expansive constitutional protections for speech, has enshrined limitations. (One cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, for instance.)

While laws – and responsible oversight by social media platforms, if ever that can be mandated in ways they will adhere to – can structure the playing field, they cannot determine the actions of the players. For that necessary change, we must look to our own behaviours and attitudes and how each of us might play our role in reinforcing social norms. In a post-Christchurch attacks interview, American anti-racist educator Tim Wise advises people: “Pick a side. Make sure that every person in your life knows what side that is. Make sure your neighbors know. Make sure the other parents where your kids go to school know what side you are on. Make sure your classmates know. Make sure that your family knows what side you are on. Come out and make it clear that fighting racism and fascism are central to everything that you believe.”

We must, I think, resist the temptation of the easy neoliberal “solution,” the fiction that small numbers of committed individuals can neutralise a normalised culture of hate. But there is a germ of insight in Wise’s prescription. Yes, we need a better legal climate, one that levies real penalties on social media platforms that fail to monitor the content they make available in our lives; yes, we need more responsible social media companies and Internet site moderators; and we also need to all do what we can to make sure that the people who are listening to each of us are hearing messages that contribute to a healthy and caring social world.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” (the campaign of invective and abuse organised against women in the video game industry) was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate. Another thing I learned was that many of the casual reproducers of that organised hate are not fully culpable actors; they have been drawn into something they think they understand but when they can be made to see how harmful it is, they will renounce it. I do think Natasha Lennard is right about the futility of trying to appeal to people who have chosen hate or fascism, but there are many others on the fringes who can be influenced away from those ideas. They need to be surrounded by people in their (online and offline) lives who are speaking the language of anti-racism, feminism, multicultural inclusion, and the equal right to dignity of all human beings.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate.

If online hate has IRL (in real life) ramifications, then IRL influencing might be a way to save or reclaim some otherwise radicalised young people, and also a way to assert pressure on the social media platforms to “walk their talk” of wanting a more connected community. The Christchurch Call cannot, in and of itself, drive out the poison of white supremacist hate. But it can, perhaps, inspire us to make our communities (the gifts we share with each other) gifts worth receiving.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.


Tracey Nicholls is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Peace Studies, Soka University, Japan.


Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

Tracing the digital contours of the settler colony helps us understand how old inequalities will shape a future with artificial intelligence.



Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence
Download PDFPrint Article

For much of the nineteenth century, Sundays in an open field at the gates of New Orleans saw a spectacular congregation of human activity. Picture a hot, humid, swampy Louisiana summer day, the Spanish moss dripping from the trees, and the bass drum pulse reverberating as you approach a mass gathering at the fringe of the United States’s most Caribbean city.

You’d see New Orleaneans of all stripes, dressed in everything from the latest Parisian fashions to simple rags, standing around in circles, watching the most talented musicians, dancers, actors, and diviners of their city on full display.

If you could have angled your head to see inside the circle, you would be privileged to witness the diversity of humanity coming together. People from across Africa and the Americas co-mingling, sharing their culture, celebrating the arrival of the one day they can express their home and ancestral cultures in public.

Unaware that their communing would one day birth a novel culture, which would in turn branch out to influence cultures in the rest of the world, there must have been an urgent feeling to the gatherings, fleeting if not quite ephemeral, but temporary enough to make them feel dreamlike, religious even. As soon as that feverish dream of a day would break, they would be returning to unpaid labor, toiling in fields or answering to the whims of their white masters. Because they were not, in the society in which they lived, human.

In 2018, after returning to the US from living in Brazil, I visited New Orleans for the first time. While there, I picked up a book on the history of Congo Square, and in the following months I couldn’t help from periodically daydreaming about the historical Sunday gatherings in that city. I drew parallels to the basement house party or the rented community center of my childhood in Milwaukee, where immigrants would dance the night away, speak in their own language, eat their own food, even worship in their own cosmos.

They were also there at the nightclub that I frequented as a student in Madrid, filled with young men who may have risked their lives crossing deserts and seas to arrive in Europe, and who now danced in the center of circles to Youssou N’Dour. Or they were in the hidden away bars and nightclubs of New York and San Francisco, where migrants of a variety of classes and national origins brushed up against each other, catching up on the latest sounds from their various home lands. They were also in online spaces, in which young people across the world found a foothold for expression, with various permutations of digital soul music pulsing on the parallel circuits of a global capitalism still guided by the logic of white supremacy.

Connecting a historical moment like Congo Square to my own experiences helped to challenge lingering colonial logics embedded within my imaginings of America’s past. It particularly helped to destroy an invisible line that tends to be drawn between those whose ancestors arrived on these shores from Africa in bondage hundreds of years ago, and those who arrived more recently for other purposes. It forced me to recognize that African migration to the Americas (or elsewhere) can and should be thought of as a continuum, and the humanity of those who migrate, forced or by choice, is unbroken across space and time.

Last summer, I sat in a parking lot in King City, California, a small town surrounded by mountains and endless fields of fruit and vegetables, listening to a local Spanish language radio broadcast. On it, alongside various Mexican regional musics, they had public service announcements about COVID-19 and ads for English language classes. King City sits in the heart of one of the centers of industrial agriculture in the United States.

The manual labor performed in this region is done by workers from Mexico and Central America, some undocumented, but all descended from people who occupied and moved around these lands freely for thousands of years. Largely invisible in nearby wealthy urban enclaves, they are an integral labor force that save for a periodic scapegoating, demonization, and dehumanization in the media, isn’t normally seen as part of the nation—let alone having their hopes, joys, or individual expressions considered in mainstream discourse.

So I sat there, listening to the bright horn choruses and upbeat snare drum rolls, and imagined that these local radio broadcasts served to provide a sense of community and humanity to their audiences, not unlike those of the Sunday gatherings in New Orleans two hundred years ago. Humanity denied, humanity reclaimed, the contours of citizenship and their interplay with labor are perpetually dancing at the edges of the settler colony.

Contemporaneous to the gatherings at Congo Square, the American settler colony was in an expansive phase moving west across the North American continent. Around the same time, European powers were doling out territories for themselves in Africa, and across the world they accomplished these “civilizing missions” by pushing the existing inhabitants off of the land, killing or imprisoning them, or attempting to wipe out their way of life. The privileges of white settlers in these extensions of Europe were fortified by the legal structures of the colonial state. In the United States, laws like the Homestead Act and the Second Amendment to the Constitution turned white frontier families into state-sponsored militias, their structural advantage scrawled across the physical landscape of the continent.

In the wake of the guns and military campaigns (sometimes manned by colonised peoples themselves), urban professionals of the colonial metropoles followed with their pens, phonographs, and cameras and became the documentarians of the folk culture of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier (as well in the working class neighborhoods of cities). These state agents and entrepreneurs would chronicle the transition from an Atlantic society based on slave labor to capitalism. The legends they constructed would become the foundation for an imperialist ideology that continues to this day.

Starting around the mid-1800s, the US witnessed the rise in popularity of the blackface minstrel show. Through the medium of vaudeville, and with Congo Square as one of the direct source materials, the minstrel show denigrated people of African descent (or anyone deemed other at the time), mocking the expressions of humanity that they managed, while simultaneously integrating them into the identity of the nation. This form of entertainment would produce America’s first pop stars who would in turn become global ambassadors for the new American society that was emerging.

The legal mechanisms for enclosure in the world of ideas mirrored those of physical territory. As communication technology rapidly advanced, the mechanical copyright emerged to protect property in the cultural realm. This mechanism ensured a structural advantage for those with the resources to extract and define the value of the culture of those at the margins. The owners of patents and copyrights did more than just document their changing world, they also ossified racial categories and ushered racism along from the biological realm into the cultural one. This was the foundation on which the global entertainment industries of today were built.

After the very slow and wrought process of abolishing Atlantic slavery, and the violent consolidation of the colonial territories, by the turn of the twentieth century debates about citizenship and civil rights would arise to mask the battlefield over humanity. As Native Americans were cordoned off to reservations, Africans in the Americas would be folded into the nation as Black (Negro, Colored, etc). And as the western literary genre moved from the written word to the screen, and the minstrel show moved from live theater, to radio and phonograph, to film and television, the twin legacies of the fascination with and denigration of a dehumanized other would leave their mark on each.

White capitalist copyright owners would position themselves as the authoritative gatekeepers on the pure folk cultures of the inferior races, or white performers, on stage with their actual faces, would insert themselves as the individual genius responsible for the synthesis of a unique cultural innovation, the social relations behind the slick final product forever obscured. While various cultural rebellions have arisen throughout the years to counter these processes of dehumanization, the tools of extraction inherited from the nineteenth century have proven to be more than effective in upholding the logic of empire and racial capitalism.

In parallel to this cultural push and pull, a political debate would arise amongst Black Americans over how to (or whether to) integrate into the settler colonial society. Visions of a return to Africa would wax and wane, while an anti-colonial politics was violently repressed. Ultimately, the call to own property as a way to secure one’s rightful place within the nation, the ghosts of 40 acres and a mule, would ring out loud over the decades. This echo has found new life in today’s discourse around race, resulting in an ascendant black nationalist purism, particularly online. This trend is unfortunate. While there is certainly agency within the beauty and virtuosity that has come into the world as a result of the cultural resilience of African descended peoples in the Americas, it doesn’t mean that it is the result of some intrinsic quality unique to one racial group or national historical context.

In fact, it could be argued that the African retentions that remain in the Americas survived because the dominant systems either tolerated them or weren’t able to read them as such. In other words: Black American cultures have arisen as a result of both black resilience and white supremacy. Still, America’s Blackness is one of the most important cultural expressions of resilience and resistance in modern society. To put an enclosure around it only reinforces the settler colonial mentality, leaving the aims of universal humanism incomplete. Even those Africans at Congo Square, who helped start this whole thing in the first place, would likely remain outside of the gates.

Just over an hour drive from that King City parking lot where I was listening to the radio in Spanish, and on the western edge of the continental territory colonised by the United States, sits the headquarters of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Facebook, Tesla, Apple—the heart of the global information economy. Even though the bubble of the California Gold Rush has long since burst (a process that seems to repeat itself every few decades), it has turned into a region with one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. If mass media was born amongst the colonization project of Euro-American imperialism, the dehumanization of non-European peoples, and the consolidation of racial capitalism, then today’s information economy is also built upon that same infrastructure.

On the wild frontiers of the early internet, online communities emerged that would freely exchange infinitely replicable digital material. In what many thought was a new reality of a post-scarce digitally permanent world, the reign of the regime of copyright briefly found itself in crisis. Music was the most fertile ground from which to declare one’s liberation, but it wasn’t the only one.

And while interaction with the old guard of racial capitalism allowed a tradition of gatekeeping and cultural appropriation inherited from vaudeville to continue, what had emerged within the confines of the virtual world—torrent libraries, file sharing sites, personal blogs, forums and chat rooms—collectively could be thought of as a sort of digital Congo Square. The response from the United States Department of Homeland Security, alongside other policing efforts, was to raid the safe houses of free exchange and try and put an end to it all through intimidation.

Before the average uploader became familiar with the DMCA takedown, some big companies looked at the anarchistic landscape and lured the loosely organized scattering of digital cultural producers onto their free platforms. Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc all provided sleek design, convenience, and a veneer of protection from the harshest crackdowns by the state.

Yet, these platforms were not immune to the demands of capital or its watchdogs. Perhaps, they never were meant to be. Investors eventually wanted returns, and the landed copyright elite needed their cut too, and whether planned or not, all the platforms would eventually make concessions that favored the biggest property owners over the public. These concessions would eventually evolve into the phenomenon now popularly known as surveillance capitalism.

Eventually, the ideological struggles of our time would also move on to the individualized “feeds” and “timelines” of the Silicon Valley platforms. No longer reserved for the stage of fights between or within nations, political speech is tailored, tracked, and manipulated in the interest of generating more interaction with minimal regard to the real world consequences. We may constantly measure ourselves against how we think other people might see us online, but when you strip us back down to our most human needs and desires, the questions that concern much of the population of this planet are fairly simple: What is the right of any individual human to exist wherever they are on Earth? And, under what conditions do they have a right to do so?

So today, across the world, young people leave rural communities to work in the fields, mines, and factories that fuel the supply chains of multinational corporations with the slightest hope that integration into the global economy will provide a better future for them and their families. Masses from the urban margins take to the streets with the belief that by facing state violence head on they might bring about a more just reality for their communities.

And, when members of both groups feel like they have no alternative but to hit the unmarked highways of the world’s most dangerous migration routes and seek a better future elsewhere, they are doing so with the idea that the same world that can beam images and sounds via satellite to a mobile phone in their pocket must be able to recognize a humanity denied as a result of neocolonial economic, environmental, and military policy.

Like in the post-Reconstruction era in the US, many of the proposed solutions to the injustices that have emerged in the digital age have concentrated on finding technological fixes to restore (old) systems of fair(er) compensation for the output (input) of online denizens. However, rather than provide solutions to the structural inequalities inherent to capitalism, technological fixes such as blockchain capitalism, cash app mutual aid, personalized sponsorship accounts, and other enclosure-oriented solutions ultimately retrofit the infrastructures of exploitation against the claims of universal humanism. While there certainly is value in building community online, especially as a form of resistance or resilience, the question remains: What forms of online participation emerge from the claims to humanity of the marginalsmisfitsNative Americans and Africans at the frontier?

And in our resistance, we should also never forget that the reality of surveillance capitalism is that one person’s individual wealth, clout, or social relevance is insignificant in comparison to the aggregate picture of all the behaviors of the world’s population.

By the time the platforms had a monopoly on audiences, they no longer needed the cultural products they claimed to be supporting to have any exchange value at all (with human moderation becoming fertile ground for corruption or payola). While influencers try to squeeze out a few pennies from sponsors or trickle down monetization schemes based on clout they’ve managed to accumulate in their online and real world social networks, the runways of the digital future are paved with the promise of returns from the proprietary algorithms built on data hoarded from the behavior of the masses.

As it stands, a few companies, concentrated in specific geographic locations, fortified by an accumulated wealth never seen before, defended by the largest military force ever to exist, swallow and secure all the information we give them: our behaviors, our desires, all of our humanistic acts and expressions, and employ small armies to sort, categorize, process and program, with the end goal of creating an “artificial intelligence” that can ultimately stake a claim to humanity too.

However, unlike the popular science fiction fantasy in which the future battles for humanity will happen between robots and humans, as big tech plans an exit from a planet in crisis, our future struggles are more likely to look like the age old one of humans who can harvest the fruits of their enclosures versus those of us who can’t. So, if blackness is the foundational currency on which the capitalist information economy is built, what will whiteness mean to a cyborg.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Continue Reading


Combatting the Desert Locust Menace

In January 2020 Kenya experienced the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity to the country and the region.



Combatting the Desert Locust Menace
Download PDFPrint Article

Locusts are small creatures measuring approximately 0.5 to 3 inches long and weighing 0.07 ounces that belong to the grasshopper family. The average lifecycle of a locust is three to six months. In normal circumstances they are solitary but can change their behaviour and become gregarious under certain conditions. During the dry season, they tend to swarm together in the scant patches of vegetation. The swarming causes serotonin to release into their central nervous system, promoting rapid movement, giving them appetite for a more varied diet leading to their rapid spread.

The onset of rains brings with it an increase in lush vegetation, favouring the rapid increase of the insects and triggering their gregarious phase during which the desert locust can be devastating, consuming its weight in food in a day. In each square kilometre of a swarm there can be as many as 40 million individuals capable of destroying in day enough food to feed more than 35,000 people.

Towards the end of 2019, the East African region experienced an invasion of desert locusts of a scale not witnessed in the region in decades. The desert locusts descended on farmland in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia in their hundreds of millions.

According to scientists, two cyclones in 2018 — Cyclone Mekunu in May and Cyclone Luban in October — caused massive rainfall in the Arabian Desert, a factor that facilitated the breeding of desert locusts. The rains were enough to create ephemeral lakes in the desert, a favourable breeding ground for desert locusts. It is believed that this phenomenon is likely to have enabled the formation of three generations of locust deserts, increasing the number of the swarming locusts 8,000-fold.

As is the nature of the desert locust, the swarms began to migrate and by the summer of 2019 they were crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden into the Eastern Africa countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. The desert locusts continued to breed for several months, with the autumn rains experienced in the East Africa region — capped by cyclonic storm Pawan, experienced in December of 2019 and responsible for rainfall in Somalia — triggering another reproductive cycle of the desert locusts.

The swarms of locusts continued to grow and arrived in Kenya towards the end of December 2019, rapidly moving through the northern and central parts of the country. By the end of January 2020, Kenya was experiencing the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations — which moved through the neighbouring countries of Eritrea and Djibouti, finding their way to northern Tanzania and northeast Uganda in mid-February — that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity in the region.

The impact of the locust invasion was severe and continues to be felt to this day. In as much as Kenya has made significant steps in combating desert locusts infestations, new infestations continue swarming into the country and farmers in the north and in some parts of central Kenya continue to grapple with the huge losses caused by the invasions.

According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 20.2 million people in the Eastern Africa region faced acute food insecurity in 2020 alone, a condition that was worsened by the desert locust infestations and the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, according to the FAO, desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.

As explained at the beginning of this article, the desert locust has the potential to destroy in one day food that can feed over 35,000 people, threatening a country with food insecurity. But while this might be the immediate impact of a desert locust invasion, infestations have other long short- and long-term effects.

It is said that a healthy nation is a productive nation. However, locust invasions have the potential to nullify this statement in less than a week of their landing in a region. The recent and ongoing wave of locust infestations has driven families and vulnerable groups into poverty and hunger, a situation that has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.

Desert locust infestations are not only a threat to crops but they also threaten the survival of livestock. The FAO reported that in Ethiopia alone, an early assessment of the impact of the wave of locust invasions showed that more than 5,000 square miles of pastureland and 800 square miles of cropland were destroyed. The infestation also caused the loss of over 350,000 metric tonnes of dry grains and cereal, resulting in over one million people experiencing hunger and needing food aid.

A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all. Hunger and poverty contribute to increased crime in a country, driving people to engage in all manner of vice in an effort to survive.

Food insecurity is also a leading cause of increased government borrowing in a bid to alleviate the suffering of the population. The borrowing, which is meant to cushion the nation from the effects of the invasion and other resultant challenges, leads to a ballooning national debt and a high cost of living. Locust invasions also seriously affect a country’s export earnings which has a direct effect on previously planned expenditures. Locust infestations also tend to derail the development agenda of a country as it is forced to put scheduled plans on hold in order to deal with the invasion.


How then can a country deal with locust infestations to guarantee its food security and avert the challenges associated with such invasions? Biological methods of pest control are safest, both for the environment and for humans. However, biological methods of desert locust control may not be effective, especially in cases where swarms are involved.

The most commonly used biological method of pest control is the use of a predator to eliminate the pest. However, the challenge with this method is that it cannot be effective in controlling large swarms of locusts as they can easily fly away from their predators. Another challenge is that locusts barely stay put for more than a day or two since they are constantly looking for food and therefore cannot be easily contained and controlled.

A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all.

The other option of locust control would be to use of nets to capture swarms. However, this method of control can only be effective on a small scale since large swarms of locusts can fly above and past the nets.

Scaring the swarms away is yet another method of locust control. However, it can only be implemented in small areas since scaring the pests away only drives them to the next available vegetation for them to devour.

Consequently, the most effective method of controlling  large swarms of desert locusts is to spray organophosphate chemicals in small, concentrated volumes using aerial sprayers, vehicle-mounted sprayers, or from knapsack or handheld sprayers in smaller areas.

However, spraying chemicals to control locusts also has adverse effects on nature and on living organisms. For instance, while the use of the Metarhizium biopesticide was found to be 70 to 90 per cent effective in the control of locusts, with no measurable impact on non-target organisms, this is not the case with other chemical formulations that wipe out both the target and non-target organisms, immensely impacting the ecological balance.

During the recent wave of locust invasions experienced in Kenya and the larger East African region, the FAO has collaborated with the local and national governments to mitigate the spread of these swarms to other areas by spraying pesticides both on the ground (to kill any eggs or nymphs) and aerially in areas where it is safe to do so. Research is ongoing to develop formulations that have the least impact on non-target organisms.

Notably, the FAO is working closely with 51 Degrees Ltd. to bring the desert locust situation under control using a hotline system integrated with tracking software, trained scouts, and aircraft. The EarthRanger system captures and transmits locust sightings and movements, making it easier to control the warms. Initially developed to track poaching, the method has been yielding positive results in locust control in Kenya.


Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future. Having mitigation measures in place to reduce the impact of locust infestations on a country’s economy is crucial.

Locusts are an important part of the grassland ecosystem as they stimulate nutrient cycling and play a crucial role in food chains. As such, governments should think of balanced ways to control these insects while at the same time maintaining the much-needed balance in the ecosystem. Controlling the locusts ensures that a country enjoys food security and also averts other challenges brought on by locust invasions.

While biological control may prove hard to implement, especially where large swarms of locusts are involved, the government can come up with other safe control mechanisms that do not affect the environment and ecological balance. For instance, finding a way of preventing swarms of locusts from landing on crops as they migrate can be a good way to ensure that a country’s food security is safeguarded.

Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future.

Additionally, investing in research to better understand the biology of locusts, their breeding habits and migratory patterns, and applying the ecological niche modeling approach to predict the breeding sites of locusts can be very useful in controlling these insects. Institutions such as the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya have been at the forefront in researching better ways to combat locust infestations using this approach.

The model proposes the use of historical datasets of the breeding patterns of desert locusts in the Middle East and in the Sahel region to predict the probability of locusts breeding in the East African region. This type of research identifies the desert locust breeding hotspots and better prepares a country to combat the menace. Through such an approach, the government can come up with a cost-effective, site-specific, and targeted management of crawling hoppers before they become gregarious adults, thus minimising the risk of an outbreak.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

Continue Reading


Kenya: Will Recognising Ethnic Identities Lead To Positive Outcomes?

Countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics.



KenyKenya: Will Recognising Ethnic Identities Lead To Positive Outcomes?a Should Take Note: Recognising Ethnic Identities Can Lead To Positive Outcomes
Download PDFPrint Article

Kenyans are preparing to amend the country’s 2010 constitution, with a referendum tentatively scheduled for June 2021. The amendments focus on ensuring shared prosperity, managing ethnic diversity, and avoiding divisive elections.

They were first proposed in the Building Bridges Initiative report, which came about after the country’s election stalemate of 2017.

After two rejected polls, increasing tensions and pockets of violence, opposition leader Raila Odinga and presidential victor Uhuru Kenyatta shook hands in March 2018 and agreed to work together under what they termed the Building Bridges Initiative.

Its report has a section on “Ethnic Antagonism and Competition which highlights the need to “find ways of managing … diversity” and preventing “ethnic conflicts in Kenya.”

The report holds that the ethnicised winner-takes-all nature of Kenyan politics has been at the root of the country’s election instability. But debate over its proposals, which are now included in the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, continues.

Much of the debate is around ethnic representation in government, equitable sharing of resources among Kenya’s diverse ethnic communities, and the role of the current political elite in future governance structures.

In our book, Diversity, Violence, and Recognition: How Recognizing Ethnic Identity Promotes Peace, we investigate some of the same issues debated in Kenya today.

We focus on contexts around the world that, like Kenya, are ethnically diverse and have experienced violent conflict on so-called ethnic lines. This means the religious, tribal, caste, racial, or other descent-based characteristics along which politics and society have been structured.

We examine the strategies that different countries have chosen to manage such conflict. In particular we study how and why leaders choose to recognise or avoid reference to ethnic identities in government institutions and the effects of this choice on peace.

Our findings were surprisingly clear: countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics. But these effects depend on which ethnic group is in power.

Recognising ethnicity

We studied constitutions and peace agreements from 57 countries around the world from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, Burundi to the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland). The countries we studied experienced violent conflict between 1990 and 2012. We searched each document to determine whether or not they named different ethnic groups as part of the body politic.

We found that globally, 43% of post-conflict constitutions and peace agreements named ethnic groups. Sometimes this ethnic recognition comes with group differentiated rights like representation quotas or autonomy arrangements. But in other cases it is largely symbolic.

In Kenya’s case, the 2010 constitution mentions “ethnic diversity” but it does not name specific ethnic groups. The same is true of the Building Bridges Initiative proposals and the constitution amendment bill.

We also found that there was a pattern that distinguished the contexts where ethnic recognition was adopted: the leader was typically from the largest ethnic group. When leaders from the largest ethnic group were in power, ethnic recognition was adopted 60% of the time. However, in contexts of minority ethnic rule, ethnic recognition was adopted only 24% of the time.

Ethnic recognition is less common in Africa than in other regions. Still, there are notable instances of recognition on the continent like Burundi and Ethiopia.

Why it matters

We used statistical analysis to compare trends in countries with and without ethnic recognition. On average, countries that explicitly recognise different ethnic groups in their constitutions or peace agreements go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and greater democracy than countries that did not.

We believe that this is because ethnic recognition, and policies connected to it, help to manage mistrust between groups.

Recognition allows groups to know how they are doing compared to others through metrics like group-based statistics. This brings issues pertaining to inequality or exclusion out of the sphere of rumour and speculation. In addition, group-based rights such as representation quotas dampen fears that one group will dominate state institutions.

While recognition leads to a number of positive societal effects, we found that these effects depend on the ethnic group in power. The beneficial effects of recognition have been most powerful for countries where the leader is from the largest ethnic group. In contexts of minority ethnic rule, leaders have to balance the rights that recognition offers with countermeasures to prevent larger ethnic groups from winning power.

Take for example, Burundi. It’s last three presidents have been from the majority Hutu ethnic group. Some may worry that formally recognising ethnic identities could entrench mobilisation along ethnic lines. But political dynamics in Burundi illustrate the opposite.

For example, it named ethnic groups in the Arusha Peace Accords of 2000. The accords are widely attributed with having brought the country out of its 1993–2005 civil war.

It also named ethnic groups in its 2005 constitution. The constitution established ethnically based quotas for parliament, political parties, the military, and other state institutions. As a result, inter-ethnic conflict has become increasingly less relevant politically.

This has not been the case in neighbouring Rwanda, which is led by an ethnic minority leader. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution seeks to “eradicate ethnic identity”. But deep inter-ethnic mistrust persists. This is despite laws that restrict references to ethnic identity except when commemorating genocide victims.

Integrating ethnicity

Ethnic recognition policies can appear in different sectors from the executive, legislative or judiciary, civil service and the security sector, to education and language. It can be the basis for different types of national strategies to build social cohesion.

For example, Burundi’s approach since the enactment of its 2005 constitution has been to use ethnic quotas to balance and integrate groups within state institutions. This has promoted cooperative intergroup contact, which has helped to reduce inter-ethnic mistrust.

Since its 1995 constitution Ethiopia has also taken an ‘ethnic recognition’ approach to governance. However, its ethno-federal regime has put more emphasis on granting regional autonomy rights, including a right to secession.

It is conceivable that an autonomy-based strategy could offer assurances that promote national unity, but the current dynamics in Ethiopia suggest a high degree of volatility.

Many wish for a foolproof recipe for managing diversity in conflict-affected contexts. There isn’t one. But Kenyans are not alone in debating best strategies. Our book offers accounts of other countries’ experimentation and reminds us that constitutional moments are high stakes and that institutional choices matter.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue Reading