2020 was a revealing year. The exponential rate of technological change in the past decade was already posing certain challenges and threats to vulnerable communities, supporting a largely unequal Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Compounding on this, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the existing, deep-rooted inequalities in societies across the world and further exacerbated it.
COVID-19 also mandated a reckoning of sorts for a civil society that is lagging behind in the 4IR: when physical was forced to shift to digital, the need for rapid digital transformation no longer seemed to be on the far-off horizon but something that needs to be confronted immediately.
It is apt that on the World Day of Social Justice – 20 February 2021 – the United Nations’ theme is ‘A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy’.”
We invited four experts working at the intersection of technology and social justice to share their perspectives on how to ensure social justice in a digital world.
End the digital divide
Christopher (Chris) Worman, Vice-President, Alliances and Programme Development, TechSoup, and Jochai Ben-Avie, CEO, Connect Humanity
We must rally together now to build the communities and investment vehicles necessary to deliver meaningful access to all.
—Chris Worman and Jochai Ben-Avie
The pandemic is highlighting how serious the consequences are for the more than 3.6 billion people that lack reliable, affordable, and meaningful access to the internet. Ultimately, a digital economy and digital society only exists for those who are connected to it, and the people who are falling into digital and economic poverty are disproportionately poor people, women, and communities of color.
Who has meaningful internet access is itself a question of equity, but we must also ask who is being left out of the conversation and at what cost when work, schooling, healthcare, and political participation exist predominantly online?
Solving for our digital divides is one of the great challenges of our time, but we know how to solve it. Universal access requires alternative infrastructure providers, new types of financing and business models, changes in policy, digital skill-building at scale, and an increase in locally relevant content. It is doable and we must rally together now to build the communities and investment vehicles necessary to deliver meaningful access to all. Stable, just, digital economies depend on it.
Ensure an internet that reflects the multiplicities of being human
Wafa Ben Hassine, Principal, Responsible Technology, Omidyar Network, USA
Social justice goes beyond equality. It requires equity and a fundamental recognition in the value of human diversity. And with our everyday lives intertwined with the internet, equity and human rights must be embedded within it as we strive for social justice.
Users must be involved in decision-making processes at every level so their realities and rights are accounted for.
—Wafa Ben Hassine
This will only happen when users are empowered to decide how they want to build their online lives. Right now, those decisions are made by a select set of large companies. This must change. To ensure fairness, inclusivity, and indeed – justice – users must be involved in decision-making processes at every level so their realities and rights are accounted for.
A rules-based system is only as strong as the people who inform and uphold it. Moving forward, tech companies must do better by their users by ensuring their representation in critical processes, and elected officials and regulators must do better by their constituents so that our internet is more just.
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Fight disinformation and harmful content
Prof. Michael Posner, Jerome Kohlberg Professor of Ethics and Finance; Director, Center for Business and Human Rights, Stern School of Business
The rapid expansion of social media in recent years overall has strengthened social justice movements by providing free, easily accessible information and promoting its wide distribution. Yet at the same time, the deliberate misuse of these same platforms has contributed in many cases to an erosion of social justice and poses a growing threat.
Disinformation distorts the truth and accelerates racial, ethnic and political polarization.
These setbacks are the result of the dissemination of hate speech, disinformation and other harmful content on social media sites. Disinformation distorts the truth and accelerates racial, ethnic and political polarization. The internet did not create these divisions, but it is amplifying them.
In order to ensure social justice, the major social media platforms need to assume much greater responsibility for moderating the content on their sites. They have immediate access to what appears on their platforms. The algorithms they have built determine how content is ranked and recommended. They also have the unique capacity to identify harmful content and label, demote or remove it. To date, these companies have not stepped up to their responsibilities, despite widespread and growing demands that they do so. In the absence of vigorous corporate self-regulation, governments are exerting greater regulatory authority over social media.
Increase civic participation
Renata Avila, Co-Founder <A+> Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms
The current way tech giants are designing and deploying technologies is closed and guided by profit over social benefits and scale over local needs. We need a far more ambitious vision than sectorial incentives to social tech entrepreneurs. We need to think bigger, design better and include more on large scale projects to serve the public good.
Design digital systems that are inclusive by design, feminist by default and publicly funded.
—Renata Avila, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, POLYLAT
To ensure social justice in the digital world, we need to involve those we want to serve. Invite them to the design room to contribute with ideas to better shape their digital futures, using the power of well-designed digital systems to reverse economic, gender and race inequalities rapidly and at scale.
Beyond local reality feeding design and policies, I want to enable people to imagine better digital futures for them and their communities. So, we won’t just translate today into the design; we’ll translate utopia into the design. Once designed, we need to make the deployment, maintenance, and improvement of such systems sustainable, publicly funding the institutions that will open a new era of public interest technologies and technologies with large-scale social impact.
The Forum’s Technology and Social Justice Initiative is a multi-stakeholder platform for driving stakeholder responsibility for social justice — in partnering with civil society in the design, deployment and use of technology; evidence of where technologies impact inequality; and investment needed for long-term change.