Racial Profiling & The Age of Internet Representation

Racial profiling is a loaded term. The practice of law enforcement and other individuals purposefully monitoring people of color or other marginalized groups because of preconceived notions of them being a higher security threat is normally associated with border patrol, stop and frisk laws, and shoplifting. However, in this new digital age, racial profiling is not only happening in person, but it is carried out on various Internet platforms. Despite claims that the Internet would be the great equalizer of our society as outlined in John Perry Barlow’s email manifesto “A Cyberspace Declaration of Independence,” existing structural oppressions that have been reconfigured to fit within the space of the Internet have made the Internet a breeding ground for social inequality. These inequalities include disparities in ability to access digital tools and how people are able to represent themselves on the Internet.

One of the largest controversies surrounding racial profiling is Facebook’s ‘real name policy.’ Under this policy, Facebook users are required to use their real names on their profiles. Facebook users who do not comply with this rule are subjected to repeat warnings from Facebook administrators, temporary profile suspensions, and in many cases, a deletion of the profile. This type of policy disproportionately affects people of color with ethnic names and LGBTQ individuals who have changed their names for various reasons. Huffington Post blogger James Nichols writes, “With this policy in effect, it is virtually impossible to find an entertainer — or anyone who self-identifies with a name that isn’t legally documented — on Facebook unless that individual operates a separate fan page.”

Not only is this an issue of security for individuals, but this is also an issue regarding self-representation. Names and the act of naming are so important to our society; names allow for common understandings and imbue the people, places, and objects in our lives with meaning. Washington Post feature writer Jane Leavy says, “Naming is a privilege of reason and the province of bullies. We name to tame and to maim; to honor the great, the dead, and ourselves.” The names written on one’s legal documents may not be representative of their actual lived experience. In addition, names that aren’t traditional are the beginnings of the stories that are often left untold in mainstream American society.

By allowing algorithms designed by white men in hoodies to determine the ‘realness’ of a name, we are allowing them to “tame and maim.” They are taking away the ability for individuals to “honor; I do want to point out one glaring inconsistency in Facebook’s policy. Their name change policy says, “The name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life.” Facebook officials maintain that the aim of their site is to “be a community where people use their real identities.” However, authenticity cannot actually be achieved until people are able to represent themselves as they see fit.

One of the early responses to Facebook’s name change policy was the social media site Ello. This site, created by queer white males, seems to be a safe haven for individuals harmed by Facebook’s policy, but the premise of the website is exclusionary. The fact that users have to be invited by other users creates a dynamic “who knows who” dynamic. I do have to applaud Ello’s efforts to be a “public benefit corporation.” Recently, in an Al Jazeera article, Amel Ahmed writes that Ello is committed to being “ad-free and not sell user data.” This is an amazing step in the direction of user agency on the Internet, especially given the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s letter to Facebook.

The racial profiling as a result of names brings me to a larger conversation that needs continued discourse. Racial profiling and self-representation are tied not just to the name an individual has on their profile, but one’s entire Internet presence. In class we discussed Airbnb’s price disparity among people of color and white users. There is also something to be said for the various parody accounts created on Twitter and Vine that appropriate elements of ‘black culture’ and use it for entertainment. Finally, how these questions of self-representation differ depending on the social media site one is on. For example, one person’s profile on Facebook versus their profile on LinkedIn may have different aspects of their personas emphasized.

In closing, I would like to emphasize how cool it was to see Facebook responding to its name change policy after a grass-roots type movement from drag queens.

Works Cited

Collins, Jareb. “The Art of Self-Representation.” LinkedIn. N.p., 2 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140802191728-217555853-the-art-of-self-representation&gt;.

“Dear Facebook: Sorry is a Start. Now Let’s See Solutions..” Electronic Frontier Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/10/dear-facebook-sorry-start-now-lets-see-solutions&gt;.

“Ello’s new legal status leaves questions unanswered | Al Jazeera America.” Ello’s new legal status leaves questions unanswered | Al Jazeera America. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/10/24/social-network-ellosnewlegalstatuspartoflargertrend.html&gt;.

Nichols, James. “Facebook ‘Name Change’ Policy Disproportionately Affecting LGBT Community (UPDATE).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/15/facebook-name-change_n_5824836.html&gt;.

“barlow@eff.org.” Barlow Home(stead)Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://homes.eff.org/~ba

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