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.
For years, technology companies have been pressed by lawmakers to take action on the spread of misinformation and disinformation, as well as the rise of hate groups convening on their platforms. New media outlets lacking integrity have emerged to fight what they call the “suppression of free speech.” And, so far, they’ve been successful.
As we usher in a new presidential administration, how can we continue working to hold technology and media accountable for aiding the spread of false information and hate speech plaguing our society? How does the intersection of technology, media and race influence culture?
This week I’m joined by Brandi Collins-Dexter, Visiting Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Senior Fellow at Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. Brandi recently authored the report, “Canaries in the Coal Mine: COVID-19 Misinformation and Black Communities,” which explores how dangerous and deliberately false narratives about health and safety have spread among and saturated Black social media communities during the pandemic. Brandi is currently writing a book about Black participation in democracy and the U.S. economy.
Jen Carnig: I'm thrilled to be joined now by Brandi Collins-Dexter, Visiting Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Senior Fellow at Color of Change. Brandi, thank you so much for joining me today on Keep Me Posted.
Brandi Collins-Dexter: Thank you for having me.
Jen Carnig: I'm really intrigued by your work and how you talk about tech, media and race, and how they really intersect. We too often think about them as separate and distinct areas of advocacy, but you have been so instrumental in bringing them into a convergence. Can you tell us a little bit about why that's so important?
Brandi Collins-Dexter: Yeah, of course. I have to give credit here both to media justice, where I started in doing this work, and specifically also to Joe Torres of Free Press, who I definitely consider a mentor and inspiration, wrote the book “News For All The People,” which is one of the most comprehensive rundowns of race and media and tech and where they intersect. And one of the things that stood out to me for the book that's always influenced me is — groups that are on the margins and who are often unheard in the mainstream are always racing to find that new technology, particularly communications technology, that's going to either create, find or hack that technology as a means to mobilize and create a new normal. So throughout history, you have different groups, whether you're talking about Black, Latina, and Native American communities in the 20th century using radio. Whether you're talking about people that used newspapers in the past, before that as another form of technology. But the race to find what is that communications and that new media that can really help us move towards a different normal. And then you always have the kind of status quo finding a way to crash in and restrict that and ensure that those who are operating to find a voice are pushed out again. So as you understand that in history and you see that fight even playing out now with big tech platforms and technology, it's extraordinarily important that we're able to connect those dots for people and tell them this is why you should care about what Facebook is doing, regardless of whether you're on the platform or not.
Jen Carnig: That's so interesting. It kind of fits into, I think, a little bit of some of the ideas that you shared when you and I last spoke, which was in this kind of alternate universe time before the election, and you were talking about the idea of cultural translation and how the right has been very successful using it. Can you tell me a little bit more about this concept and why it's so effective and why, you know, the royal we should be paying a lot more attention to it?
Brandi Collins-Dexter: [Laughs] Yeah, so cultural translation to me means how political ideas and values move from the fringes and become normalized. And, there's, like, different examples could name of how that's done. What comes to mind to me is gay marriage and the ways in which television shows, music, media, other forms of content and how we process those things and normalize in the American consciousness this idea that gay marriage should happen and exist and in love is love and all of that. And that's one example of what maybe people would consider a Leftist frame moving into the mainstream. But what we see a lot more often is how the right-wing takes that on. And so like one example that I’m writing about is how militarization plays out. And so thinking about the Vietnam War and all of the movement building that was done around that. And if you think of the movies in the Seventies, a lot of them were kind of like this dystopian presentation of life and war life after war: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, like The Deer Hunter, you could name a few movies through this certain period of time. And belief in the military and in war was like at an all time low. And then you see a couple of things happen. So the Department of Defense actually forges a relationship with Hollywood, and Top Gun is the first movie that comes out that has this depiction. And so now when we think of the Navy, we're not thinking about it in this context of war, but we're thinking of oiled-up Tom Cruise playing volleyball.
Jen Carnig: Yes. [Laughs]
Brandi Collins-Dexter: And then you see all of these others into the Department of Defense has this like long standing relationship that like Indiana Jones, Silence of the Lambs, Transformers, movies that wouldn't even necessarily pop into your mind where they're the chief consultant on that. And then you see video games like Call Of Duty and a number of other games that are sort of gamifying the act of being a soldier in war and all of that. And then you see sporting events where there's a whole bunch of like sort of a militarized pomp and circumstance. And all of that is normalizing this idea to the point where you go from the Vietnam War, where one war is creating a bunch of discourse, to where we are now, where at any given point there's like multiple wars, there's like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq. When we think about how many active wars we have going on simultaneously that are just kind of in the backburner of our public discourse, that's part of what we saw about the cultural translation of the idea of war and militarization as being this positive thing settling into the public discourse.
Jen Carnig: Do you think there's a way to be doing that in a positive way? Like, what's an example of how the Left could actually try that and try to move our ideas forward a bit?
Brandi Collins-Dexter: I think there's a lot of ways I think BLM is sort of an interesting case study in that. I think, you know, there's mixed work for sure. But if we think about five years ago, and I know you know this from us working together on this, to get people to even talk about or think about Black Lives Matter and be able to like readily say that, it just didn't happen. People would shy away from it or try to play both sides-ism. That's kind of where like the All Lives Matter stuff comes from. Then, now cut to now where corporations can't, you can't rush over themselves fast enough to see say Black Lives Matter. Now there's a lot of like advocate work that has to happen to make sure that Black Lives Matter, right? But the narrative frame and how it's moved to this global norm, I think is , is, is one example of that. I think, you know, certainly we could think about some of the work around net neutrality, which, I mean, it's still to a certain extent, a little bit of a fringe term, but when you just take “net neutrality” as a term itself, it's such a weird, dry, like term that I think the work that's even been done to have that move into the mainstream and have it pop up in different places is actually, uh, you know, unheralded in terms of like being able to get a really wonky term to mean something to people.
Jen Carnig: Absolutely. Yeah. I'm always amazed by those polls that show something like 80% of Americans support net neutrality and I'm stunned that 80% of Americans know what it means, but it's a total victory. That’s right. It's a good transition into kind of from this hopeful space as we think about the next four years, right? So we're transitioning from this time of pain and cruelty, and we're still really optimistic about what's to come, even though we know the reality of the inevitable frustration and disappointment is coming. What would you say to folks that we should be paying the most attention to, as a new administration takes office, and how we might not repeat the mistakes of the past?
Brandi Collins-Dexter: Yeah, so, I mean, one of the things I want to go back and say, and being really specific, I started talking about this with the Vietnam War, but I think it's really important with net neutrality and other things that a lot of those conversations are coming from unexpected vehicles. So not just a petition that you might get from like Color of Change or someplace else, but, you know, music and comedy and other places like that. And I think, as we think about what happens with this administration now, I think there's a lot of work to do. I think there's been some work through pop culture to really open up the veil on the harms of Facebook, in particular. I think we don't talk enough about Amazon or Google/YouTube for that matter, but I think that there's an understanding of what happens when you have issues around monetization of data. What happens when free speech as a frame is used as a cover for white nationalism and acts of aggression against different communities. And we see what happens when corporations become too big to really be reigned in. As I've been working on my book, one of the interesting stories that I've been reading about that I wasn't familiar with was Nazi cartels and President Harry Truman finding that monopolies and the growth of big business and the ability of those entities to wield power over government was actually what helped bring Nazis into power. And that is part of what prompted a lot of antitrust law that happened under him. So if we place it in that context and we look at where we are now coming off of Trump, there's so much work that has to be done around corporate concentration around big it broadly, but it's specifically with these like big tech platforms. So I would love to see the administration immediately move into action around that. I think there's a lot of privacy fights that all of us were kind of immersed in that had traction and then just seeing this sort of get derailed in the last year or so, but I think that are very important for us to get back into. I think net neutrality and some of the crucial wins that we had on the books that were immediately undone within almost like the first hundred days or years of the Trump administration. Now we've got to go back and not just restore those things, but move us forward.
Jen Carnig: You've mentioned your book. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Brandi Collins-Dexter: Yeah, so the book is tentatively called Black Skinhead and it's looking at Black people's relationship with political parties and with corporations and to each other in the U.S. And how certain understood norms around those relationships are beginning to shift and why. So really looking at what historical black political organizing look like offline, what it looks like online now, the ways in which we've seen, even with the Biden administration, this discussion playing out around whether or not diversity in the Cabinet could happen without pulling from corporate spaces. I disagree with that take, but certainly it speaks to the ways in which Black people have gone into different corporate corporations and then come in and out of government and what are the implications for that broadly, through a class-based analysis amongst other things. So that's a lot of what the book is about, and it's using a lot of what I think are interesting pop cultural references for that. So “Black Skinhead” comes from Kanye West and looking at him about like whether or not he's an outlier or a warning sign. I'm working on examples that are drawn from like wrestling, which is a secret embarrassing passion of mine, but I think speaks to a lot of the different issues, but really trying to make it again accessible for how people think about some of these different issues.
Jen Carnig: That's amazing. Just with one final question: as someone who has built your career in the advocacy world and working at Color of Change and Media Justice, I know you know firsthand that the work is never done, but there must be something that is giving you hope these days. And I would love if you could share that with us.
Brandi Collins-Dexter: Interestingly enough, there's multiple things that have given me hope. Like, I certainly thought this summer we hit a lot of lows with COVID, with George Floyd and other deaths at the hands of law enforcement and other things coming into play. It really felt very dystopian. And also looking into the data now we saw a spike in people becoming registered voters in that moment. And particularly Democrats becoming registered voters. And the spike was extremely significant when you look at the chart. And when you cut to now, where you have the largest voter turnout in 120 year history, I believe, and that's - I would say that even with both sides, I'm not one want to play both sides - but I think anytime we have that many people coming out to participate in our political process, that can be a good thing. Like, I'd rather it not be because there's someone so horrible in office that the work is just to get him out and that we're voting for a vision, but the fact that people are still willing to engage in democracy is hopeful. I think some of the work that we've see - I think you probably remember it because I feel like Spitfire did some of the early focus groups and messaging around tech companies that I remember looking at - and initially when we started doing this work, it was like people hated ComCast. That was a given. Hated AT&T and all of that, but had really favorable views of Facebook, of Google and these other companies. And it was really hard to really organize against them and people were so used to seeing them as a luxury that it just was, like, why are you even talking about this? But now you see people really engaged and interested in this issue. You see workers in the companies that would have never spoken out against their CEOs actually coming forward and talking about some of the things that they've experienced. So I think we're in a new time of discourse that provides a certain amount of opportunity for us moving forward. So that's the kind of stuff that gives me hope, for sure.
Jen Carnig: Wow. You've heard it all. Political participation, public utility tech and professional wrestling. I definitely wanna leave it there. It has been such a delight to speak with the incredible Brandi Collins-Dexter, Visiting Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Senior Fellow at Color of Change. Brandi, thank you so much again for joining me today on Keep Me Posted.
Brandi Collins-Dexter: Thanks again, Jen.
Jen Carnig: I want to again thank Brandi Collins-Dexter, Visiting Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Senior Fellow at Color Of Change.
Next time on Keep Me Posted, I’ll speak with Steven Renderos, executive director of Media Justice. I hope you’ll join us.
Until then, please follow the show on Twitter @KeepMePostedPod and rate, review and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts.
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.