Jen Carnig: Welcome to Keep Me Posted – a podcast from Spitfire Strategies about the intersection of race, rights, democracy and justice in the digital age. Each episode of Keep Me Posted is a short conversation with leading experts and advocates in law, civil rights and technology. I’m your host, Jen Carnig, Chief Advocacy Officer at Spitfire. You can follow the show on Twitter @KeepMePostedPod.
What is truth? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t truth?
As Mojave American poet and activist Natalie Diaz said last year, “Truth is often what white people have used against Brown people to explain and exercise and flaunt the power of their whiteness.”
The stories shared through media and technology platforms hold power in shaping our culture and understanding about people and communities who are often underrepresented. At a time when misinformation and what my guest today calls “organized lies” overwhelmingly move into the mainstream, it’s important we take a look at who is owning these stories and shaping the narrative.
This week I’m thrilled to speak with Steven Renderos, Executive Director of MediaJustice, a national racial justice hub fighting for a future in which all people of color are connected, represented and free.
Jen Carnig: Steven Renderos is the Executive Director of MediaJustice. Steven was previously MediaJustice's long-time campaign director, leading initiatives for prison, phone justice and net neutrality, fighting giant corporate mergers and pushing for platform accountability measures. Steven, thank you for joining me today on Keep Me Posted.
Steven Renderos: Thanks for having me here, Jen.
Jen Carnig: So I'd love to hear a little bit from you, just off the bat, kind of about what MediaJustice is, exactly. Throughout 2020, we have heard calls for racial justice across the country, especially following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other people of color. What is MediaJustice and where does it fit into all of these calls?
Steven Renderos: Yeah, Media Justice for us means the transformation of media and, increasingly, technology for the purpose of social change. You know, I think when we look at some of the ills that have happened throughout 2020 - increased police killings of Black bodies - what that represents is not just the physical manifestations of racial discrimination and bias that exist in policing, but also the embedded belief systems and values of a society that deprioritizes Black life. And a lot of the ways in which that becomes centralized is through culture, and media and technology feed into that larger ecosystem of culture. And so, when I was coming up as a young organizer doing immigrant rights organizing and affordable housing work in the Twin Cities, I realized that there was a difference between the story that was being told about the communities that I organized in and the actual reality. And, in the early days of me getting involved in MediaJustice, which is a sector that has existed since 2002, when a seminal gathering at the Highlander Center brought together racial justice activists that conceived of a movement that needed to exist to really challenge the story that media told about us. There's something that I would often be told back in those days from some of the organizers I learned from like Malkia Cyril, who told me that ‘truth in and of itself is insufficient because disorganized truth can be overcome by an organized lie.’ And I think that's at the root of what's happening in our world today. Disorganized truths are the stuff that we're fighting for, that we are unable to really challenge like the organized lies that are out there. The organized lie is that policing can deliver a safety; that immigration reform is possible through enforcement and through some sort of pathway to citizenship; that we can address climate change without really addressing the fundamental causes of it. There are all of these places in which organized lies have embedded themselves and the belief systems and the values of our political system, of our economy, and those are perpetuated through culture and media. So, for us, there has to be a strategy where we're dealing with media and technology as a means to disrupt and take that power away from those that have been in power for so long and bring that to the communities that are fighting for other structural changes. For us MediaJustice, the purpose of it, is media and technology that's in service of social change.
Jen Carnig: “The organized lie" is a big thing. It feels, in many ways, insurmountable, especially, looking at all the areas you just listed out from immigration and policing to climate change, an existential threat. For me, I often feel very overwhelmed by those big, daunting areas of injustice. And I'm curious if you could maybe name something positive for us as we are opening a new year. What are examples of media justice, of storytellers that are doing it well, what are the stories that are inspiring you and giving you light right now?
Steven Renderos: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, I, one, root myself in the longer arc of history that, at every sight of media manifesting the values and belief systems of those in a position of dominance, there's been historical examples of resistance along the way. The fight to tell our own stories is as long as time and the fight in our work has always been about media, and then always been about technology. The first newspaper to be published in this side of the hemisphere was the "Public Occurrence" in the late 1600s, before the United States was the United States. The first Black newspaper was founded in 1827, so certainly like over a hundred years later, but you know, the first Black newspaper, "The Freedoms Journal," in the very first edition said, "We wish to plead our own cause. Far too long have other spoken for us.” It's through that history that I ground myself, knowing that we've always been at the forefront of battling to tell our own stories, whether it's been with newspapers and the printing press, transmitters or radio, cable and who actually got to own the channels, there's so much rich history of where we have challenged and been fighting to tell our own stories. That's the first thing I wrote myself in is in that history. MediaJustice, as it exists today, is just the latest manifestation of so many people that have come before us, like Ida B. Wells documenting lynchings throughout the South. Robert Vance, who was the Editor-In-Chief at the Pittsburgh Gazette, that led a nationwide boycott of the minstrel show "Amos and Andy," and generated like 300,000 petitions to the FCC or what the FCC equivalent was back then. There's been people who have done this work well before us, and there will be people who do this work well after that well after us. And I think to me that speaks to movement building as a process and not so much an end. When I think about today, I look at the work of folks that are fighting for and owning community media. And we organize a national network called the MediaJustice Network and many of our members have come out of a struggle to tell their own stories, like KRSM, which is a community radio station on the South side of Minneapolis, that's literally located within blocks of where George Floyd was killed in 2020 in the summer and they spent the entire time of the uprisings producing programming to help people contextualize the moment, to provide programming that spoke to healing, which is a complete 180 from what the local media and even the national media were focusing in on, which was just perpetuating a lot of the same cycles of harm and a lot of the same organized lies, which have led to the moment of George Floyd getting killed. So that's what I root myself in, as in the folks that are doing this work on a day-to-day basis in their local communities and many of those people are people that I'm proud to be in partnership with, through the MediaJustice Network.
Jen Carnig: I was just looking at some of the remarkable accomplishments MediaJustice and your partners over 2020. I'd love to hear from you about your priorities and the issues that MediaJustice is taking on in the year ahead. And especially in this moment where we're trying to celebrate and be optimistic, but also we know what is to come and that things will not be magically fixed just because there's somebody new in the White House. So kind of, how are you prioritizing things and what does MediaJustice going to be stepping up to take on in 2021?
Steven Renderos: I think there are a couple places where we're trying to make big impacts. The first is, for years we've been talking about the Internet as this very kind of transformative technology that allows for us to communicate and own our stories in a way that other communications platforms really haven't allowed for in the past. And so, we've always talked about the Internet as an essential utility, something that every human being should have access to. 2020, I think, solidified for people in a very tangential way, what that means because sheltering in place, you can't work, you can't go to school, you can't go to a doctor without the Internet and I think the future of our day-to-day life will depend more on the strength of our Internet connection than anything else. And so that's going to be a big area of priority for us moving forward. We think that in the next four years here in the United States, we can close that digital divide and fundamentally give people the kind of access that they really, truly need. The other big thing I think that we're gonna be looking to disrupt is, the world that we've lived in for the last few years has been defined by a concept known as techno-chauvinism. The idea that technology is the solution to everything. You know, in the moments that have been toughest for us, in our organization but also in society over the last four years, what we've lived through is the consequences of believing that the way to address police violence is through more surveillance. The way to deal with mass incarceration is with more electronic monitoring. The way to deal with hateful activities online by white supremacists is to just supplement the Internet with more speech and amplify more speech. The way to deal with immigration is to build smart borders with drones and facial recognition. We need to disrupt that idea. Technology is not always going to be the solution and certainly not when the people who are creating it and owning it look nothing like the communities that are being affected by it. So those are the two big areas or impacts that we're going to be looking to make. For us, that means tackling the unchecked power of big tech companies and breaking through the myth that these companies can somehow regulate themselves. They've proven unable to do that the last few years and it's time for fundamental structural change that addresses the root causes of the problem with companies like Facebook.
Jen Carnig: Yeah.
Steven Renderos: The business model is the problem. They generate profit off of advertising and collecting massive troves of data. They're not incentivized to prevent the more harmful elements of social media discourse. They're not incentivized to address it because if you look probably today at the most popular post on Facebook, they will be conservative, right-wing leaning pages that often play in misinformation; that often prey on false stories about communities of color. They're not incentivized to really address the darker elements of discourse on their platforms because it's the thing that's actually driving high engagement. So we need to fundamentally address the business model and we need to address the way that the technology functions right now that enables more harm.
Jen Carnig: So how do regular people take that on? How do you go toe-to-toe with Facebook? How do you possibly take that on? So what are things that real folks can do to hold these companies accountable for the harm that they are causing on communities of color and on so many Americans?
Steven Renderos: The thing that for me has made me hopeful over this last year is seeing the introduction of new players into this space. You know, new organizations that think like us that look like us. Groups like Mijente who have focused on tackling the use of technology in the immigration system. The Algorithmic Justice League that's focused on taking on the bias embedded in the use of facial recognition technology and other algorithms. A lot of the members of our growing MediaJustice Network. So I guess I would say for regular everyday folks: your voices matter and many of these organizations could use your support in helping to grow their lists so that we can engage you in those opportunities where your voice can have an impact. So certainly, you know, sign up for the MediaJustice League, uh, MediaJustice, uh, list, you know, donate to these organizations. Um, your resources can make a real big difference because, you know, in many ways I think of us like as a burgeoning and growing set of Avengers to use the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you know, comparison. You know, I think we've been growing the field and we have a cohort of organizations like Free Press, like Mijente, like the Algorithmic Justice League, Color of Change, The Leadership Conference, groups that have stepped up to the table to say for our communities, we will not let these big unchecked, giant monsters overtake our world. So support these organizations. That's probably the most fundamental thing that folks can do.
Jen Carnig: That's great. Steven, I appreciate your time so much. Just wanted to ask you for a final thought, y’know, something that you really want Keep Me Posted listeners to take away. What would that be? What do you want to still hold on to?
Steven Renderos: Y'know, I think that our future is really tied to our ability to own and control the media and technology that shapes our lives. That's always been true, but increasingly even more so today as technology and media just embed every single function of our day-to-day life. So, you know, I think, really, think about the issues you care about and on every front, be it climate, be it education, be it criminal justice, policing, there is a technology intersection with that issue and it means that we have to pay attention and we have to fight for the kinds of changes to our media and technology that make the other wins possible. You know, we're not going to get to a police-free future without eliminating surveillance technology. We're not going to get to a future in which we're taking on climate correctly and reversing the course of climate change without tackling the world's biggest polluters, of which technology contributes to quite a bit. We're not gonna ensure that everyone has a 21st century education without the kinds of resources that ensure that they can take advantage of the media and technology that exists today. So that would be my biggest thing. It's like, don't lose sight of how media and technology is actually fundamentally shaping the way our world works today. And, you know, there are no longer secondary issues in the way that, when we first started as an organization, we might've seen the representation of young people in media as an issue that was important, but not more important than fighting policing against and criminalization of youth and by police, or fighting the incarceration of young people today. You know, those frontline issues that we care so much about are very tied and very wedded closely to the media and technology fights that we also care about. So, prioritizing them and fighting for structural change there because I do think it makes a fundamental difference to all the other stuff we care about.
Jen Carnig: Steven Renderos, Executive Director of MediaJustice. Steven, thank you so much for your time today and thank you for your leadership. It is just such an honor and a privilege to talk to you. You really inspire me. Thank you.
Steven Renderos: Likewise. Thank you, Jen.
Jen Carnig: I want to again thank Steven Renderos, Executive Director of MediaJustice, for joining me today.
Next time on Keep Me Posted, I’ll be speaking with Alvaro Bedoya, founding director of Georgetown Law School’s Center on Privacy and Technology.
Keep Me Posted is produced by Spitfire Strategies. Trendel Lightburn is our senior editor. Our production team is Gabriel Rodriguez, Kristiana Jordan, Duncan Bartok, Gabrielle Connor, Aaron Zeiler, Hannah Berkman, Maggie Cass and Nima Shirazi. To learn more, visit us at spitfirestrategies.com. The music is by Ui. And I’m your host, Jen Carnig.
Thank you so much for listening. Stay well.