On the first day of this year’s Robot Ethics course, I did something new: I held a class discussion on the role that Computing technologies played in facilitating an attempted coup on the US Capitol. I’m hoping this isn’t a class activity I have to run again, but I’m glad I did it: not only because it went surprisingly well, with students eager to engage in provocative, constructive, and respectful discussion, but moreover because these are discussions we should be having in all of our classes, even those not specifically focused on technology ethics.
As I’ll discuss later on, I think that we in Computer Science have a unique educational responsibility to address these sorts of topics in our classrooms. But moreover, educators across all departments have a responsibility to ensure that students (and ourselves!) understand precisely what happened on January 6th, and why.
At least within my social media bubble, the primary responses from professors, administrators, and students to the events of January 6th were those of shock and condemnation. I would argue that this demonstrates a fundamental failing of our systems of education (and self-education).
To be clear, reflexive condemnation is not the part of this reaction that should be troubling. All of us, especially educators, have an obligation to forcefully condemn the insurrectionists, their violent assault on the capital, their efforts to lynch the Vice President of the United States, and the violent rhetoric and calls-to-arms from the President and his enablers that were antecedent to those actions. What is troubling, however, are the expressions of shock and surprise among our students and colleagues, which demonstrate a failure to recognize these events as a predictable culmination of longstanding trends in American society.
The political violence we witnessed last week was an attempt to use force to perpetuate America’s racial power structures and systems of racial oppression. Since the beginning of European colonization of the American continent, American society has been structured in order to maintain the power of certain social groups, especially those racialized as white, over others, especially those racialized as black: a pattern that has continued long past the end of America’s centuries of widespread African enslavement.
This is evident from phenomena like Redlining, in which cities refused banking services, healthcare services, supermarkets, and economic development to neighborhoods with minority residents. This is evident from phenomena like Sundown Towns, in which black residents found in town after sunset were arrested, assaulted, or lynched. This is evident from American use of police forces, which were founded in many areas to control minority populations and continue to this day, in many places, to protect white and upper-class populations while controlling minority and working-class populations. This is evident from America’s continued use of slave labor to exploit those racialized minorities it imprisons. And it is evident from the racial caste system that is imposed on Americans from racialized minority groups if and when their incarceration ends.
Throughout American history, when policies and social movements have threatened the hegemony of dominant social groups, it has led to violence. When Black politicians began to be elected to congress in southern states after the civil war, white residents responded by assassinating politicians, lynching prospective Black voters, and instituting policies that stripped blacks of their voting rights. When black business began to thrive in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1920s, white residents responded by burning the business district to the ground, massacring hundreds of Black residents and leaving thousands homeless. When Black Americans pushed for the end of the segregatory and discriminatory practices of the Jim Crow Era, they were lynched, bombed, and beaten. This summer, when Americans protested the continued killings of innocent Black Americans at the hands of the police, the continued imprisonment and enslavement of Black Americans at the hands of the American criminal justice system, and the racial caste system imposed by the American state, American cities responded by deploying police to further beat, mace, gas, trample, run over, and shoot. And on January 6th, when the President, a man who once spent $85,000 to publicly call for the execution of innocent Black children, was defeated in the presidential election, and two men, one Black, one Jewish, were elected to the Senate in Georgia’s runoff elections, a group of predominantly white men answered the president’s call and descended on our nation’s capital with the intent to foment revolution, to overturn the results of the election, and to find and lynch those they viewed as responsible. These events were condemnable, but they should not have been surprising.
To be clear, while the attack on the Capitol may have its most direct antecedent in the conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns spread by Trump and his allies surrounding ostensible election fraud, those attacking the capital were in large part racially motivated. The attacks were led in part by the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist organization of white supremacists that serve as Trump’s modern analogue to Hitler’s Brownshirts: the same organization that was observed vandalizing black churches and burning Black Lives Matter flags during DC’s recent “Stop the Steal” rally. The Proud Boys were joined by members of other neo-Nazi organizations such as the National Social Club, with other insurrectionists waving Confederate and Nazi flags and sporting shirts calling for the killing of Jews. They were also joined by a large number of QAnon supporters: conspiracy theorists who believe that President Trump is fighting against a child sex-trafficking ring run by Satan-worshipping Democratic cannibals: a modern re-telling of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that became a central piece of Nazi propaganda.
The events of January 6th were appalling, sickening, and antidemocratic, but again, they were not surprising. This is a critical distinction for those of us who are educators. For engineering educators such as those at my home institution, it is our job not only to ensure that our students receive the mathematical and scientific training needed to implement technological visions by fulfilling specifications and running experiments, but moreover to ensure that our students receive the training needed to be engineers and scientists; training that necessarily requires understanding the social environments in which their technologies are developed and deployed, and in which their scientific theories are developed and evaluated. This requires us to ensure that our students are familiar with the key organizing principles of the society in which they live, including the racial power structures and systems of racial violence that have defined the structure and course of American history.
Moreover, for those like myself in the field of Computer Science, we bear additional educational responsibilities. Computer Scientists must grapple with the events of January 6th at a more careful and deliberate level due to our field’s complicity in enabling and fueling the political violence under discussion. While the events of January 6th are, as discussed, merely the latest manifestation of America’s culture of violent reactance to challenges to white hegemony, the events of January 6th in particular have direct causal antecedents in the policies and actions of the Computing industry, due to the role that Computing technologies played in facilitating the spread of the racist conspiracy theories and disinformation that brought the mob of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists, and other insurrectionists to Washington in the first place.
As mentioned previously, many of those who participated in the events under discussion were members of white supremacist organizations and/or victims of racially motivated conspiracy theories, both of whose success were facilitated by the choices made by algorithm designers and business leaders at the world’s largest technology companies. First, the spread of these conspiracy theories and white supremacist ideologies were accelerated by content recommendation system development choices. Content recommendation algorithms, which suggest new groups to join and new videos to watch, have played a significant role in the spread of conspiracy theories and modern right-wing radicalization, with Facebook’s researchers finding that nearly two-thirds of all instances of users joining extremist groups were done at the prompting of Facebook group suggestion algorithms. Similarly, YouTube’s search and video-suggestion algorithms have been observed to routinely route viewers towards sources of disinformation. Second, these conspiracy theories and white supremacist ideologies were able to spread due to ineffective content moderation policies at these same companies, with major social media companies refusing until this week to remove high profile right-wing accounts spreading widely debunked conspiracy theories relating to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the 2020 Presidential Election and calling for insurrection, leading directly to needless deaths from COVID and an attempted coup on the United States government.
And while significant amounts of money and CS research have already been poured into making social media less of a negative influence on society, the events of this week have shown us that unless engineers and business leaders working in the Computing industry are willing to consciously work towards solutions to these problems, even if it means loss of profit or alienation of powerful political allies, their systems will continue to be leveraged as tools of destruction. As Computer Science educators, it is thus our responsibility to ensure that Computer Science students learn about the role that algorithms and algorithmic policy play in modern society, both in terms of the role that algorithms and algorithmic policy play in political radicalization and the spread of conspiracy theories, and in terms of the perpetuation of racial biases and racial injustice.
Critically, our students’ education on these topics cannot be left to upper-level computing electives. As Nicki Washington highlights in her recent article “When Twice as Good Isn’t Enough: The Case for Cultural Competence in Computing”, Computer Sciences students’ discipline-specific education on topics centering on race (and gender) should really begin earlier, e.g. in Sophomore year. For those of us who are Computer Scientists, perhaps we should all be pushing for introduction of lower-level undergraduate coursework on Race in Computing and on Computing in Society, to minimize the risks of Computer Science students becoming responsible for the algorithmic discrimination, political radicalization, and domestic terrorism of the future.
And of course, these issues extend well beyond the Computer Science classroom. At engineering schools like my home university, it is easy to see how students are not receiving adequate education on topics related to race and society, due simply to the lack of undergraduate coursework available on such topics. But this is really a problem across the vast majority of institutions of higher education. My wife and I went to a Small Liberal Arts College in Upstate New York, a college that did offer plenty of courses relating to race. And yet, each of us managed to receive four years of Liberal Arts education without taking a single one of those classes. This is especially surprising in my wife’s case, given that she was a Sociology major. Perhaps all of us should be pushing for mandatory coursework introducing all of our First-year or Sophomore college students to topics relating to the Sociology and (American) History of Race and Ethnicity, to ensure that our students are able to understand these critical dimensions of the social context in which all of us live, and for those of us at Engineering schools, the social context in which our technologies are designed and deployed.
Finally, it’s important for recognize that this isn’t just an issue of the education of our students: it is moreover an issue of education of ourselves, our colleagues, and our administrations. Only by encouraging a culture of moral self-cultivation and continuous education will we be able to (1) institute the sweeping curricular reforms that will be necessary to ensure the proper education of our students, and (2) ensure that engagement with topics of race and society in the Engineering curriculum are not viewed as the sole purview of those of us who do teach courses whose names include race, ethics, and society.
Tom Williams is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the Colorado School of Mines, where he directs the MIRRORLab. He is grateful to anonymous colleagues for their substantial assistance with this article. This article may not reflect the views of his University.
Further Materials for the Interested Reader:
The New Jim Crow (Alexander) • Racism Without Racists (Bonilla-Silva) • So You Want To Talk About Race (Olua) • Between the World and Me (Coates) • Race After Technology (Benjamin) • Algorithms of Oppression (Noble) • Automating Inequality (Eubanks) • Weapons of Math Destruction (O’Neill)