Want A Safer Internet? Listen To Black Women

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all…It’s Brittany. I got to say on the surface the past few weeks have at least “felt” a bit calmer since a certain twice impeached somebody got kicked off of social media. Still after all the online hate and disinformation and incitement of white supremacist violence it is clear that big tech is long overdue for a real reckoning. And sure social media has been a force for much good. I mean, it has helped promote Black voices…Ferguson was the most used hashtag in the first 10 years of Twitter. Social media has allowed me to connect with y’all and us with one another, but it’s also empowered legions of regular old everyday racists to wage a war against us. I personally haven’t felt safe online for years. 

Okay. So story time back in 2016, I started to get really strange messages on Facebook from a former high school classmate of mine. He is white. Clearly I’m not. And his notes were really aggressive and pointed to my involvement in the Ferguson uprising. So at first I just, you know, I blocked him and I ignored it, but things really began to escalate. He started making overtly racist death threats, things like fight a white man and die. That was the one that scared me the most. So at first, when they started, I reported these to Facebook and he was blocked from my page, but he continued his threats on the platform. For two months, I was constantly on edge. I actually ended up having to have a bodyguard. And when I began dating my now husband, Reggie, my bodyguard—or uncle Mitch, as we now call him—cause he’s part of the family—he was essentially our chaperone and thankfully uncle Mitch’s cool as hell because I was a 32 -year-old woman with a full-time chaperone trying to date a man.

Good God. It was a frightening, scary time. And I kept having the same nightmare over and over: I kept dreaming that we’d leave the courthouse after I had secured a restraining order and that he would kill me right there on the street. I mean, I had to uproot my whole life: all of my packages had to be checked; I could never answer the door; I couldn’t drive myself anywhere; I ended up moving cities. And by the time legal action finally got the threats to stop—at least the threats from him—I definitely lost countless nights’ sleep. So the next year in 2017, a group of us activists met with Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook—and y’all know the author of “Lean In”—without going into as much detail as I just shared with y’all I told her that I was taking a step back from the platform after seeing how easy it was for my former classmate to be so continually abusive on it. We had a really expansive conversation with her about everything—from Facebook’s lack of internal diversity to having a role in Russian misinformation schemes.

And yet after I shared really sincere concerns about hate and violence on the platform and after she had heard about how I literally feared for my life, when the meeting was over, Sheryl looked at me and said: “I hope you come back to Facebook.” I don’t know, y’all…I really couldn’t understand why she seemed more concerned about my departure than the conditions that caused me to leave in the first place. She could have offered some help. She could have wanted to discuss how Facebook could prevent things like this from happening in the future, but instead it felt like I was nothing more than a user…and frankly I felt used. But listen, this ultimately isn’t about me or any one person or any one company, social media as a whole has gone unregulated and under-regulated for way too long.

So who’s going to keep us safe? It’s time to demand, accountability and transformation. We are undistracted.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham On the show today…Black women who saw the alt-right threats coming. Y’all know we did. I’ll be talking to Brandi Collins-Dexter from Color of Change about what needs to be done to regulate social media. And why years of online abuse against women and Black women was a precursor to what we saw happen on January 6th.

Brandi Collins-Dexter We have to pay attention to what’s happening to Black women—one, because we need to protect ourselves, but also because when people move on from us, like you’re next.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first it’s your “UNtrending News.”


Brittany Packnett Cunningham On Monday, President Biden signed a new executive order reversing Trump’s ban on openly transgender people serving in the military. 

President Biden Transgender personnel, if qualified in every other way, can serve our government in the United States military. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It was a step that over 70% of Americans already supported. However, a recent Washington Post op-ed has also called on Biden to solidify the change by getting Congress to pass it as a new law. And I have to say, I have a lot of questions—open questions—about militarism, especially in the U.S., but we most certainly can’t allow the livelihoods of vulnerable people to be tossed back and forth between the administrations as executive orders can so often be treated like political symbols.

President Biden should take advantage of having a Blue Congress because who knows what’s going to happen in 2022. This is a time to introduce the legislation and to turn over important Trump-era rulings, like the trans military ban and put it into law. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham So it’s not news that so many people are struggling financially due to the pandemic. I mean, many people are just a single paycheck away from houselessness. And, unfortunately, that was true for a lot of folks before COVID-19 even struck, but America’s billionaires…Well, they’re doing just great. Billionaires’s wealth in this country has grown by almost 40%, that’s according to the latest analysis by the Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies.

Yeah. You heard that right over the last 10 months, the nation’s 660 billionaires saw their fortunes soar by a collective $1.1 trillion. That’s going from $3 trillion to $4.1 trillion…Are y’all feeling nauseous yet? 

The booming stock market partially explains this and so do ultra-low interest rates, but the real money seems to be cash: it’s allowed the super-rich to invest in things like video conferencing—which we are all forced to do now—telemedicine and other COVID-era tech. So just to put all of this in context: America’s billionaires have earned enough money during the pandemic to pay for all of the relief for working families in Biden’s recovery plan. Like they could just cut the check themselves. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg we are looking at you. Charity is good but solidarity is better—and people need relief right now. This is about time for that Fair Share taxes program that Joe Biden ran on and that people like Elizabeth Warren and organizers across the country pushed him on. More than eight million Americans fell into poverty during the final six months of 2020, the extreme amounts of wealth inequality in our country certainly did not begin with COVID-19, nut they’ve definitely been exacerbated by it. We got to close the wealth gap once and for all in America. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham And finally…A little bit of light-hearted news. Uh, you know, I can’t help, but love that Bernie Sanders meme. 

Reporter Are you having as much fun with this as the world is?

Bernie Sanders I am.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It is peak meme. I don’t think any meme will be better than this meme throughout the rest of meme history, but now you can enter to win your very own Bernie mittens while supporting LGBTQ youth at the same time. 

So Jen Ellis, who is the now famous Vermont teacher behind Bernie’s handmade mittens that we all love, she’s crafted three new, similar style pairs and they’re currently up for auction. So Jen identifies as a lesbian and she will be donating the proceeds of one of the pairs to the queer youth organization Outright Vermont. She’s also supporting a dog rescue agency and her daughter’s college fund—because college is way too expensive. The auction closes tomorrow. That’s Friday, January the 29th. And as of the time of this recording, the Outright Vermont mittens are going for a whopping $3,800. I love this. I love the mittens. I definitely love the Bernie meme. I might go place a bid. 

Bernie Sanders It turns out actually to be a good thing and not only a fun thing. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Coming up…I’ll be talking to media justice expert Brandi Collins-Dexter about holding Facebook, Twitter, and all the social media platforms responsible for the hate spread on their sites. Enough is enough.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So, as I mentioned at the top of the show, it is about damn time big tech is held responsible for the abuse, hate and disinformation spread on their sites, because as we saw on January 6th, the results can be deadly. And I really hate to say I told you so—genuinely, I want to be wrong about these things, but there were like a gazillion red flags leading up to this moment—even before GamerGate, Black women were sounding the alarm. After all, we bear the brunt of online harassment. According to Amnesty International, Black women are 84% more likely than white women to be targeted. And none of us should be targeted at all. Well, President Biden has now promised to take aim at the country’s largest social media platforms. So what actually needs to be done?

My guest today has some great ideas. Brandi Collins-Dexter is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a senior fellow at the online racial justice organization Color of Change. For years, she has been campaigning for more social media transparency and accountability. And I couldn’t think of a better voice to unpack this complex issue.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Brandi, thank you so, so much for having this conversation with us today. 

Brandi Collins-Dexter Yeah. Thank you for having me. This is great. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay. So I want to start where I think a lot of our minds still are at the Capitol riot, and I think I can probably guess what your answer is going to be to this question. Did you see something like this coming?

Brandi Collins-Dexter So, yes, I definitely could see that we were heading in that direction because of the fact that white nationalists have always been the fastest adopters of new technology and platforms and have used it to organize. I don’t know that even I was prepared for the kind of like Barbarians and Yeezys like kind of trying to break into Congress.


Brandi Collins-Dexter Like I was just like, I can’t even believe this is happening right now. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I don’t think anybody would have guessed it would have gone exactly like this to your point, but you’ve also made the point that there’s a lot of context around the role that social media played in getting here. So help us understand what are some of those factors that may have led to this as a flashpoint?

Brandi Collins-Dexter So one of the things that is not often talked a lot about when it comes to Silicon Valley is that the strand of white nationalism has unfortunately been a part of its history for decades. I remember Richard Spencer once said that your typical white nationalist is an IT guy in khakis—and he’s not too far off on that. In fact, one of the places where you saw a disproportionate number of donations going to white nationalist sites years ago was actually Silicon Valley going to Stormfront and going to these other places, you know, Stormfront existed since the 90s, it was a platform where this type of organizing went in secret when it became, you know, not politically correct or not appropriate to do it in public. So instead of wearing white hoods, people were going online. So you have that undercurrent. And then on top of that, you have the ways in which these platforms have been built to incentivize polarization as a business model. So the more that you see people arguing, the more hate, the more hot-takes are delivered online, the more that’s amplified and the more we’re pushed into specific filter bubbles that are geared towards only being surrounded by people that think like you and take you deeper down that rabbit hole. So once you encounter somebody that’s like white nationalist-lite they’re like, well, have you heard about David Duke, have you read “Mein Kampf” like you keep going further into these like recommendations. And then that’s the only worldview that you’re surrounded by. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And then we get to a world where a bunch of folks get all of their news from one place; they get all of their information, whether it’s real or not from one place. And it’s helped amplify a lot of these conspiracy theories too. 

Brandi Collins-Dexter Yeah. I mean, I think that’s one of the most interesting things that we’ve been seeing for a while is these spaces of conspiracism and its galvanizing around these like sort of what may seem to other people absurd ideas about pedophiles in Congress, but then this idea that Trump is kind of like the superhero that’s unveiling all of these bad things and that he is clearing the swamp. And we’ve really seen Trump show a particular savviness around organizing his people around these ideas: around QAnon, around the type of conspiracism that then results in like Pizza Gate, which is still going on to this day. 

Brittany And then we get January 6th…which again, surprised a lot of people, but had been in the makings for a long time. So after January 6th, we finally see social media platforms, like Twitter, beginning to take action against these high-profile spreaders of disinformation and violence, including now our ex-president, but you’re one of the people who say that if we had listened to women in the first place, specifically Black women—because we’re always telling you what’s up—we could have prevented a lot of this to begin with. And I really want people to understand this. So can you just walk us through what you mean by that? 

Brandi Collins-Dexter Yeah, I mean so many things. I mean, let’s go back to how Facebook was started, right? Contrary to this narrative that it’s about, you know, people getting together and building their own personal social networks that actually starts with Mark Zuckerberg drunk in his dorm room after being rejected by girl, trying to start this platform where at first he wants to compare women to farm animals and then it starts comparing women to women to create this like ranked voting system of who’s perceived as attractive on campus. And in order to do that, he’s bringing in a lot of information that is violating people’s privacy, where he’s finding people’s pictures and putting them up. It’s not by consent. Right? So on his campus, this is happening at Harvard, right? Black and Latino women on the campus were already speaking out against the problems and people weren’t listening then, cut to, you know, many years later, as these platforms have developed, Black women are often the ones that are most censored, most likely to be under attack, most likely to be mimicked—whether it’s the type of GIFs that people use that are typically composed of Black women or what we even saw with the election in 2016 of the Russians imitating Black women—which is not exclusive to Russia, by the way, we have a lot of digital blackface—4Chan, for example, white nationalists online, try to imitate Black women to push harmful narratives. And that became the hashtag YourSlipIsShowing, which was created by Black women to show when 4Chan—majority white men—were trying to mimic Black women online and calling that out and you still see that happening to this day. People like Shireen Mitchell that have really been important gatekeepers doing that hard work that in a lot of ways these companies are both incapable of doing and won’t do. And because of the fact that we’re often ignored, we’re not hired into, you know, leadership positions within these companies, it’s often too late. And then by the time everything blows up, then there has to be this mea culpa about, you know, Black women told y’all and then they want to give us the crown. But it’s like, you know, you could have been listening years ago when we told you this was a problem. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You could have been listening. I don’t need your crown if you were not going to protect me in the first place. And I mean, you’ve talked about this before, when we are talking about attacks on women, on women of color, on Black women…Attack is not hyperbole. I mean, we can look at GamerGate, right? And 2014 and 2015, this online harassment campaign that brutally targeted women gamers and feminists and womanists. You’ve pointed out the attacks that Leslie Jones has suffered for being in a movie as innocuous and sweet and loving and funny as “Ghostbusters.” Do you see these kinds of things as a real precursor to what has happened on January 6th and really for the last four years?

Brandi Collins-Dexter Absolutely. I actually wrote a report that I released last year that was around disinformation and COVID and it was called “No More Canaries in the Coal Mine,” which I think is consistently the analogy that we often use, right. We are the ones that go down first and when we go down and nobody seeks to protect us or empower us or listen to us then the next group comes and then they’re the ones that are silenced or censored or, and then next thing you know, there’s a bunch of white men that are hollering about cancel culture, which is like, hey, not real, I wish it was cause there are several people that I would like to see canceled, but like most of the people that talk about cancel culture, it’s like they actually don’t ever have any real repercussions for the things that they say or do online.

If anything, they get bigger, whereas Black women are continuously silenced, censored, removed from offline. And so again, I think we have to pay attention to what’s happening to Black women: one, because we need to protect ourselves and we need to protect our communities, but also because when people move on from us, like you’re next and it’s going to keep getting bigger and everybody is going to feel the repercussions of that.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And so at a systems level, Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms, in my opinion, really didn’t do enough to address all of the above. And true to form, there are plenty of Black women outside the system—like yourself—inside the system who are working their butts off to try to shift things. But what are some of the big companies actually doing themselves? And what are the ways that government should be stepping in and really regulating some of these things that have not been regulated in the past? 

Brandi Collins-Dexter Yeah. So, I mean, I think the silver lining is that companies actually have done some work. When we think about the election and how certain things have turned out, the scary part about is that it could have been a lot worse. Were it not for the work that advocates had been doing for years that did put up some barriers or did increase content moderation. And even the increasing taking down of Trump’s content leading up to election day, at the same time you’re so right, Brittany, they haven’t done nearly enough. Then the moves to shut down Trump only came really after it was clear that he was no longer president. Like I fully believe that if he had somehow managed to win 2020, Facebook would not be making some of the changes that they’re making. So now what’s important is that this administration really be bold about what is on the table and the ways of interventions and how we’re regulating these companies.

I think the biggest issue that I would like to see more Black people involved in is the issue of antitrust and breaking up these companies: Facebook owns Instagram, WhatsApp, a number of other smaller companies they’ve swallowed up. You have Google. YouTube is the same entity. And so they are dealing with a breathtaking amount of data and access to people’s information in a way that gives them power. And so we are at this point with our government where they have to make a decision around—are we going to reign these companies? and are we going to break them up to allow them to be regulated at scale? or are we going to continue to allow them to be too big to fail? And so I would say that’s the first thing that the Biden administration should focus on, I think we need sweeping privacy legislation that really deals with the ways in which what I call Jim Crow online, the ways in which our data is often exploited. I think that needs to be reigned in. And then I’ll say quickly, I’ll tell you one thing that I think is a false solution, and that is a lot of the conversation around Section 230—for folks that don’t know, it’s a section in this 1996 piece of legislation called the Communications Decency Act, and it basically says that platforms aren’t liable for content their users post, and they can moderate their platforms as they choose to. So I think that 230 the language in there needs to be strengthened to specify like civil rights harms and what companies are obligated to do to deal with that. But I think that this whole conversation around 230 is a red herring and that it moves us away from some of the bolder ideas. And so I would say that I would like to see Democrats be less focused on 230. I don’t want to see them try to get rid of it because there’s also some protections in there that deal with encryption. And that if we got rid of 230 would actually open up a lot in terms of what information around protestors that the government could access on the backend, which is another danger we have to be aware of. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Right. You have been so informative, and this is just so helpful. And I know it’s because you’ve spent a lot of time on this. Like you said, you and lots of other folks have organized around this. You know a little bit about my own Facebook story and the threats that I faced and telling the COO of Facebook about that. And you sat in a lot of meetings with folks who work at these companies, including Mark Zuckerberg and like I did Sheryl Sandberg. What’s your sense of them? Do you think that they’re working in good faith? 

Brandi Collins-Dexter I mean, I feel a little bit cynical about it…Again, when you look at Mark Zuckerberg’s bio, from the beginning, it was built on being rejected and trying to retaliate against women because he was rejected by one woman, which is the story of, like, most horrible men, right?

Right? And you see this like quest for power in the ways in which they’ve expanded Facebook. When I hear your story, I actually think about in the Philippines when Facebook was being warned that there was a lot of dis-information that was happening in the run-up to the 2016 election of the president of the Philippines, and he was told in a meeting with advocates that 97% of the population was on Facebook and his response to them was—and particularly a journalist there was—well, where are the other 3%? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Whoa. 

Brandi Collins-Dexter And so that speaks to this idea that even in that moment when he’s finding out the harms that the platform is doing a democracy, he’s still more concerned with making sure that everyone is on the platform than making the platform safe for everyone.

So do I think that they’re operating in good faith, not really. I think they’re operating in pursuit of power. And I think they’re also not able to see the bigger picture because they’re not necessarily surrounded with people that are dealing with the day-to-day implications of harm that they do. Sheryl Sandberg I think is an interesting person, you know, she does seem to have more of her hand on the pulse or more of an understanding of what the day-to-day implications are of, you know, the civil rights violations that take place on a platform. I do think that she has a certain amount of sympathy. I think we’ve been able to break through to her on a couple of things, but I think at the end of the day, it actually doesn’t matter what their intention is. It’s the impact that matters. Their ability to operate with impunity that matters. And now, you know, when you can’t have nice things, what happens you need to get put in timeout. So I think we’re definitely at this moment where these companies are like, who gonna check me, boo. And it’s like the Biden administration and the people they put in a place and need to come in and check these companies real fast. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. Who gonna check me, boo. We are. That has to be the answer. What do you think about the idea that some of that checking actually comes in the adopting of more universal standards for defining and enforcing hateful conduct? I mean, we know the change, the Terms Coalition, which is a group of 40 organizations, including Color of Change, it’s been suggesting this. So is this one of the ways this checking can happen? 

Brandi Collins-Dexter Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things I’m proud of is that Change the Terms was developed by leaders of color that were concerned about protecting our communities. We define hate-speech very specifically and groups under attack, and we really wanted to look at this with like what is the scalpel intervention and not just taking a hammer to everything, because it was important that we get this right, because we’re the ones who suffer the most when they get this wrong. We do have a Supreme Court case on the books about free speech that says you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. There’s a lot of people on the platforms, including Trump, that have been yelling fire for a long time and were not checked. And there’s a lot that we already have in place around what’s allowed in terms of the size and scope of companies in the ways of regulation and antitrust. And so now it’s like, how do we enforce those things? How do we make sure that it’s not just left to the companies to do the bare minimum, but how do we make sure that we really work towards a democratized internet that we all deserve? So how do we really like, think about what is the vision and hope and purpose of technology as this beautiful thing that can be used for organizing and can be used for equity and can be used for connection and how do we preserve those things and really attack the things that get us to January 6th and the next January 6th, because as the companies operate right now, something like that could very easily happen again tomorrow.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham What are the risks if we don’t get this right? 

Brandi Collins-Dexter Well, I mean, I think it’s a similar question to what was asked around Columbine. When Columbine happened and those kids went into the school and shot it up, we were at a point at a country where it was time to have a serious conversation around gun laws and gun regulation and what was allowed and in our schools and, unfortunately, we didn’t get it right then. And now kids have to have, you know, drills because there are gun mass shootings happening in our schools all the time. And we’ve just almost normalized this idea that kids could go to school and have to face the reality that a mass gun-shooter could walk in their classroom when it didn’t have to be that way. And I think that’s similar to what we’re facing with the Internet.

January 6th we should’ve had a wake up call before then. We didn’t, fine. You know, people with  nooses came into Congress, chanting the names of Congress members. It could have been a lot worse as it were. It was pretty terrible. And now we have to decide 10 years from now—do we want that to be the norm or the standard that we’re just everyday living with, where we have to have these kinds of drills or do we want something better. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Brandi, thank you so, so much for the work that you’re doing to make solutions like these possible. We are absolutely with you. 

Brandi Collins-Dexter Thank you for all that you do and for having me on.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Brandi Collins-Dexter is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Senior Fellow at Color of Change. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Brandi rightfully said that we should have dealt with this way before January 6th. And I couldn’t agree more. One thing is for sure, this tipping point better be THE tipping point. Online hate has got to be toppled. If not, there’ll only be more insurrections, more attacks, more violence. Y’all, 2.7 billion people use Mark Zuckerberg’s creation. That’s one third of humanity. And like I said, I know a lot of righteous folks inside the company, trying to make that a safer space. But if Facebook were its own nation, it would be the biggest on earth and any community digital or not has a duty to keep its citizens safe.

In a few months, Facebook’s new oversight board will decide among other things, the online fate of the former Cheeto in charge who wants back on. I’m glad to see that more than a third of those board members are women of color. And I pray that they are heard. All social media from established platforms to up-and-coming ones like Clubhouse, they need to take seriously their responsibility for what has happened, for what could happen, and what will happen if they don’t keep us safe. 

I’m hardly ever on Facebook anymore. And I’m still incredibly vigilant on all the social media platforms I use. I’m not sure what it will take for me to feel actually safe online, but you know, these executives keep asking us to trust them. And my response—our response—trust is earned. Get to work.

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. 


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So thanks for listening. Thanks for being as always. Thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.