Data and Social Justice

From #BlackLivesMatter to #DalitLivesMatter

Appearing on Twitter/X for the first time in 2014, #DalitLivesMatter (#DLM) is one of the latest chapters in a long history of offline and online cross-fertilisation between Dalit and African American struggles for social justice. What can a digital humanities approach tell us about the productive and counterproductive effects of this association, and by extension about such activist associations in general?

Recent NIAS alumni Manuela Ciotti and Stefania Milan propose to analyse #DLM as a “site” featuring textual and visual narratives that interweave symbols of the Civil Rights and Dalit movements, and episodes of brutal violence against Dalit and African American populations in India and the US, respectively.

Data containing #DLM shows the fleeting and ambiguous digital lives of some of its users and their voices. On the one hand, these voices challenge “data universalism”. On the other hand, data visualization of the use of #DLM reveals that the ways in which the voices in question narrate the politics of death and violence produced along the lines of caste and race in India and the US on Twitter, are all but intuitive.

While such voices appear to largely emanate from South Asia, they privilege racial violence in the US over caste crimes in India. In other words, data visualization shows #DLM to function as an “epiphenomenon” of the Black Lives Matter movement. In this way, the act of being vocal about violence against Dalits and invoking social justice from the Global South might paradoxically further geopolitical and other inequalities, raising fundamental questions on issues of inequality across digital and physical worlds.

About the speakers

Manuela Ciotti is Professor of the Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Global South at the University of Vienna where she leads the research team ‘Sedimented visions’. She is currently a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS). Her research focuses on inequality and the politics of art, materiality and representation across the global south and north. She was recently awarded an ERC Advanced Grant for the project: The anthropology of the future: An art world perspective (ANTHROFUTURE).

Stefania Milan is Professor of Critical Data Studies at the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Media Studies, a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University and a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS). She works on the interplay between technology and society and the possibilities of self-organization, emancipation, and autonomy that digital infrastructure opens up. She leads the NWO-funded project Citizenship and Standard-Setting in Digital Networks.

Luisa Steur is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Amsterdam and Lead Editor of Focaal-Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology. Her research focuses on changing forms of political identification and the politicization of inherited inequalities (n.b. of caste and race) in the (post)socialist contexts of Kerala (South India) and Cuba. She contributes regularly to debates in the Anthropology of Labor and Capitalism.

Payal Arora (moderator) is a digital anthropologist, TEDx speaker, and author of award-winning books including The Next Billion Users with Harvard Press. Her areas of expertise include global digital cultures, inequality, cross-cultural AI ethics, and development of inclusive designs. About 150 international media outlets have covered her work including the BBC, The Economist, The Boston Globe, F.A.Z, The Nation and CBC. She is an incoming Professor of Inclusive AI Cultures at Utrecht University, and Co-Founder of FemLab, a feminist future of work initiative.

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