Domestic Surveillance
& Black Lives Matter

Oluwatona Campbell | Aug. 18, 2020

After the Minneapolis Police Department killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black American, during an arrest over allegedly using counterfeit money, weeks of protests in Minneapolis and around the country erupted. Along with the protests demanding justice for Floyd, millions poured into the street to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville Police officers as she slept in her bedroom.

These tragedies have re-ignited the Movement for Black Lives and the growing calls for racial justice and the dismantlement of white supremacy. The internet and social media have undoubtedly helped to organize protests, circulate digital petitions, raise money for mutual aid groups, and facilitate political education on white supremacy and anti-Blackness. But at the same time, in many ways, social media platforms — and the internet more broadly — work to create new vectors of digital surveillance and marginalization.

Black Americans around the country use social media to gather together on the streets, risking exposure to COVID-19 and police brutality, to demand justice. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies around the country routinely use surveillance technology to suppress protests. Police departments use “stingray devices” to impersonate cell towers to collect protestors’ mobile data and identify protesters, especially when protestors and allies share and republish videos of those resisting riot police and damaging property. The social media surveillance platform Dataminr is already “siphoning vast amounts of social media data from across the web and converting it into tidy police intelligence packages.” Together with the location data, law enforcement agencies use published videos to identify and track down protestors. In addition to facial recognition software and location data, law enforcement agencies around the United States continue to use internet technologies to suppress freedom of speech and undermine collective privacy. Thus, we must also recognize that the very platforms we use to organize and build solidarity ultimately work to re-establish systems of oppression that dominate the lives of Black Americans.

Safiya U. Noble, a scholar of race and technology, underscores that while videos and images of law enforcement murdering Black Americans often go viral on online media platforms and create national media spectacles, these videos fail to actually push for substantive social action or even work to hold law enforcement accountable. Noble argues that these social media platforms, while moderating and removing traumatic content, willingly circulate and profit from videos of dying Black Americans. Noble writes,

I contend that social media exacerbates the spectacle of death and dying, through the mechanisms of virality and hyper-circulation…While at one moment we think of these videos as meaningful in helping us make sense of police brutality and state violence, we also imagine them as evidence or records that will bring about justice.

Noble argues that hyper circulation has profound implications because

videos that circulate in multinational media platforms that feature Black death and dying are a type of commercial property that works in service of the consolidation of power, even while working simultaneously to raise consciousness and awareness of the differential status and lack of justice for Black people in the United States. Viral videos work simultaneously as surveillance technologies.

As we examine the way surveillance technologies like predictive policing, gunshot detection systems, and security facial recognition systems continue to put Black Americans at risk, we must also understand that our social media platforms play a role in enhancing the reach of law enforcement surveillance. The American Civil Liberties Union concluded that Instagram and Twitter metadata provided by the social media monitoring firm, Geofeedia, assisted the Ferguson Police Department’s investigation and targeting of protest organizers following the 2014 uprising after the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black American. As the movement for Black lives uses social media to rally and document the fight for racial justice, we must critically examine the way we use social media to facilitate social action.

Videos and images of Black Americans dying ultimately do not serve the interests of social action. Rather than spread awareness and push for change, they allow social media platforms to profit from Black death and ultimately retraumatize Black Americans who are all too familiar with what state and interpersonal violence looks like in America. Nor does posting black squares substantively help mobilize and sustain the movement for Black Lives. As author Latham Thomas reminds us,

optical allyship only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally’. It makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress.

Although social media platforms offer us new ways to connect, support, and organize together, we must be critical of the way social media platforms work to uphold the surveillance of Black Americans and also allow influencers and corporations to benefit from this social movement by using it as a new marketing opportunity. Amazon’s public response to the recent protests underscores this point, despite its large contracts with the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and their partnership with local police departments, Amazon said it “stood in solidarity with the Black community.”

The author, poet, and musician Gill Scott-Heron reminds us in his 1971 poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that:

The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions... The revolution will not be televised.

Heron warns us that “the revolution” and the liberation of Black Americans will not come from more consumerism or in our updated sense of optical allyship on social media. The revolution will only come after work to dismantle white supremacy and reject the technologies that uphold racist policing, hiring, education, communication, and entertainment. Because, “the revolution will be no re-run.”

We believe in furthering the conversation on survaillance beyond this article. Here are a few resources from Oluwatona to get that started:

1. Tech Giants Don't Care About Black Lives w/ Edward Ongweso Jr. | Tech Won't Save Us

2. Police Are Our Government: Politics, Political Science, and the Policing of Race–Class Subjugated Communities | Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver

3. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness | Simone Brown

4. From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation | André Brock

5. ABOLISH BIG DATA | Yeshimabeit Milner

6. Race After Technology | Ruha Benjamin