Global South muffled by #TechBros in pursuit of healthy digital societies


Zibran Choudhury


It seems incongruous to talk of a global divide in a world more connected than it’s ever been. However, it seems the voices of the Global South are still being muffled by a select few who are reimagining our lives in a constantly changing digital landscape.

At the latest #WINGSforum2021 webinar as part of the virtual summit series, an inspiring lineup examined the role of philanthropy in the digital revolution. Specifically, the group explored its role in mediating society and how philanthropy can navigate its threats and opportunities.

Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director at WINGS, framed a critical debate with clarity: ‘We are not 700 geeks or tech specialists’, but this is central to the work of all philanthropic actors regardless of thematic focus and it can no longer remain a niche issue that is reserved to a few ‘Silicon Valley effective altruists’. Not to mention, the global crisis that has rapidly accelerated a revolution that is happening before our eyes and touching every aspect of life and of society.

We are underfunded, we are under resourced, we are overwhelmed, and this is where I think we can have really good partnerships and really good allyship with philanthropic actors.

Bellegy’s statements on ‘democratic checks and balances’ and agreed charters on mass surveillance proved to be a forewarning, a day before Google sacked the head of its artificial intelligence ethics programme. Mary Mitchell campaigned for wider diversity at the tech giant and had previously raised concerns about censorship when asked not to release a study that claimed AI could hurt marginalised groups. Stifling voices was a constant thread throughout this discussion.

So what are the concrete strategies that funders can incorporate into their work so their grantees are prepared to navigate these threats? A peer dialogue between CAF’s Rhodri Davies with academic and writer Zeynep Tufekci, started by stating tech is inherent in social movements. Zeynep explained, ‘I just can’t imagine writing about a social movement that doesn’t have a technology, digital media, social media component partly because it’s so integrated into it. It’s not – here’s a social movement there and here’s this technology there – because it’s not just that they’re using it, it affects how they do things, how they think about it, how they get attention and how they try to shape the narrative.’ It made me reflect and wonder if funders of social movements have truly internalised this. An approach Zeynep described as ‘not good or bad, but different.’

On the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, Zeynep reminded participants that this was an early example of a social movement driven from within the technology, but crucially, led by activists who were way ahead of the marketers of the platform. ‘I learned the ins and outs of Twitter’s trending topic algorithms from the activists on the ground who were very attuned to it and they had kind of reverse engineered it and they were almost hacking into it in a very deliberate way to make their own topics trend just to be able to get some attention.’

The author of ‘Twitter and Teargas’ outlined three areas where funders and civil society could play a role, starting with the technology development itself. However, Zeynep goes on to say that technology companies have no idea about the impact of their platforms on the ground. They need to be made to care and helping document what’s happening could also help influence the design to be more socially responsible. Finally, according to Zeynep there’s a lot of misunderstanding between the people who develop technologies for activists and what activists actually need. Guess work by ‘geek tribes’ have no connection to the local need and funders can help by creating a map of needs and connecting it to those who want to do something about it. For me, this was a clear message for funders to do the legwork and the grit that’s not always attached to unrestricted funding.

Zeynep Tufekci also spoke of the need to be led by the activists, and how often these voices are subsumed by technology minded groups in the West dictating how, when and which platforms should be used. A striking reminder and example – while many have been campaigning to #DeleteFacebook, it has been a safe haven for many activists who haven’t been able to maintain independent websites due to government interference. To boycott and delete is just not viable and misunderstands the role the few big platforms play in many countries.

Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation, continued the discussion on this theme. ‘A lot of other digital rights organisations and women-led organisations who have been doing a lot of work on digital rights have been saying the same thing that you are saying right now in the U.S. I think it’s good that this conversation is happening, but I also feel that our perspective, the perspective of people in the Global South, shouldn’t be left behind in this conversation because that’s what happened in the last decade.’ Nighat emphatically concluded: ‘People in this part of the world need to be heard whether it’s a conversation around content moderation, around regulatory framework, around how to hold tech giants accountable or in any way around digital rights or digital revolution.’

Researcher and policy analyst, Nanjira Sambuli, argued that philanthropy’s role needs to go beyond financial, but also intellectual and moral because of the nuances and many implications of technology. ‘Unfortunately, those actors who work with people who have very diverse lived experiences are always left on the reactionary side.’

Nanjira is calling on philanthropy to offer ‘Patient Capital’ and listening to those who are living through the day-to-day translations of digitalisation. ‘This is a moment of reckoning where the winners will really be those who take a step back and see these things for the systemic issues they are before they dive in. I mean this in the sense of not just getting more tech bros to go out to Addis as some big tech company CEO that becomes a fill in for how they get a sense of that world that is served outside of their mainstream. We need counterforces and this is not something civil society can do alone. We are underfunded, we are under resourced, we are overwhelmed, and this is where I think we can have really good partnerships and really good allyship with philanthropic actors. To have that co-investment in that patient capital so that the financial aspect really is a culmination of all these other aspects of assessment and hearing these communities and humbly building together a way that then invests in these communities that are affected in a way that’s not considered in the mainstream.’

As Nanjira, wrote before the event, philanthropy’s role may not be flashy as terms like ‘Digital Revolution’ invoke. Instead of trying to join the information superhighway that is excluding the voice of communities that philanthropy serves, but take a pit stop instead, to recalibrate relationships between funders and communities.

Zibran Choudhury is Communications, Partnerships & Membership Manager at Alliance magazine

Philanthropy and the Digital Revlution was part of the #WINGSforum2021 virtual summit series. Watch a recording of the webinar below.

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