Duality and Recognition of Liberation Technology as Applied to Western Democracies

By EmmaKarin

Liberation Technology is a double-sided blade. We laud it for it’s ability to keep dissidents connected, to document and keep record of atrocities, but it can be turned against us so easily. Governments have the ability to use our reliance on ICTs for their own purposes. The same technology that frees us can be used to censor the Internet, create filters, track our Internet usages and criminalize us. Larry Diamond describes, “[l]iberation technology [as] any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and economic freedom” (70). Diamond focuses on the use of Liberation Technology in the “other-ed” part of the world, meaning the non-western world. His examples are rooted in the Middle East and Asia where, without a doubt, human right violations are far higher. But to imagine oppression and injustice as taking place only in places seen as “distant”, physically and politically, is damaging.

While we in the west have no issue imagining a Chinese dissident being hauled away to a detention center for posting an anti-authoritarian tweet, we are hard pressed to call up the image of our own government agencies serving subpoenas and summons to Twitter, “seeking records including the phone number, mailing addresses, and IP addresses associated” with dissident accounts (Wong). But why? We know the NSA keeps tabs on us. Every other week a new story breaks about the FBI demanding our social data. Most recently, the Department of Justice served DreamHost, a website-hosting company, with a search warrant, “for every piece of information it possessed that was related” to www.disruptj20.org, the website, “that was used to coordinate protests during Donald Trump’s inauguration” (Wong).

The J20 demonstrations are the perfect example of the duality of Liberation Technology within a Western Democratic country. J20 was the name given to the demonstration that took place to protest the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. Before the demonstration, people used Facebook pages to organize smaller groups to meet and protest together under common banners, used its messenger service to coordinate transportation to and room, and their own personal pages to post general protest safety guides. During, people used Twitter to provide live updates about what was happening on the ground in real time and alerted people to first aid stations. After, hundreds of videos are uploaded to YouTube, photos posted to Instagram, and blog articles spread across the Internet providing factual accounts of the rampant police brutality and the systematic suppression of the protestor’s rights to assemble. This is seen as the positive side of liberation technology, ICTs bringing people together to, “enable citizens to report news, expose wrongdoings, express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections, scrutinize government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom” (Diamond 70).

The more daunting side of Liberation Technology that gets overlooked are the instances when it is used against us. For example, the D.C. police subpoenaing Facebook for, “the social data of several protesters” who participated in the J20 demonstration (Daileda). Or facial recognition software scanning Instagram photos of the protest to track down those in attendance, and tweet’s being used as evidence in court to convict protestors of felony charges of ‘conspiracy’ (Higgins). Law enforcement is already infiltrating Twitter and Facebook creating fake profiles, setting up traps, and generally using social media to gather intelligence to use against groups it deems a ‘terror-threat’ all in the name of keeping America safe. Just as authoritarian dictators are able to use ICTs to track down dissidents in their countries, so does the government of the United States.

Diamond makes the statement, “[t]here is now a technological race underway between democrats seeking to circumvent Internet censorship and dictatorships that want to extend and refine it” (81). Which is immediately followed up by the contradictory statement that Iran has made “significant gains in repression” because western companies have happened because, “Western companies like Nokia-Siemens are willing to sell them advanced surveillance and filtering technologies” (81). Diamond even concludes his article with ways Western countries can support those citizens in Authoritarian countries. He even concludes his paper with a quote from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supporting free access to the Internet.

The atrocities that occur in other parts of the world are horrific by comparison, but minimizing the violations perpetrated by our own government puts us all at risk for it’s continuation and escalation. We cannot continue to delude ourselves that our democracy is above surveillance. We cannot be so naïve to think these companies are only selling to “other-ed” countries, that they’re not using these technologies on their own citizens. Especially, because we do know that they are. We have proof that our civilized western democracy is spying on us, collecting data, and using our Internet use as a means to sustain their version of a civilized western democracy. We must remember, when she was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered for more intensive surveillance of American Citizens in the name of safety and freedom.

The good and bad side of Liberation Technology exists here in America and other Anglo countries and it must be recognized. Human right’s violations and oppression don’t happen solely “over-there” in those “uncivilized” and “un-democratic” regions of the world that most American’s can’t point out on the map. Turning injustice into a solely ‘other-worldly’ occurrence makes it easier to gloss over it when happens here, in our civilized western democracy.


Diamond, Larry. “Liberation Technology.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 21, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 69–83.


Levin, Sam. “FBI terrorism unit says ‘black identity extremists’ pose a violent threat.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/oct/06/fbi-black-identity-extremists-racial-profiling.


Daileda, Colin. “D.C. police demand Facebook hand over data on Trump protesters.” Mashable, Mashable, 6 Feb. 2017, mashable.com/2017/02/06/dc-police-subpoena-facebook-inauguration-protests/#k_Vkiy6miaq1.


Wong, Julia Carrie. “US government demands details on all visitors to anti-Trump protest website.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Aug. 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/14/donald-trump-inauguration-protest-website-search-warrant-dreamhost.


Higgins, Eoin. “Hundreds Face Conspiracy Charges For Actions Of A Few During Inauguration Day Protests.” The Intercept, 25 Oct. 2017, theintercept.com/2017/10/25/trump-inauguration-protest-j20-trial/. https://theintercept.com/2017/10/25/trump-inauguration-protest-j20-trial/



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Preserving Counter-Narratives and The Racial Imaginary Institute

By EmmaKarin

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The lights dim in the Langston Hughes Auditorium within the Schomburg Center located on Malcolm X Boulevard. A short video entitled, “What is the Schomburg Center?” begins to roll and the voice of Shola Lynch, curator of the center’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, booms, “it is the place where we come to see who we are. Not just some body’s reflection of who we are.” This is the true theme of center as well as of the evening. We are here to celebrate the launch of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) website, a new type of art archive founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine. Rankine and Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks are moderating a discussion between two artists featured in the archive, Alexandra Bell and Hank Willis Thomas. The website is one of the first steps for the institute, which will collaborate with organizations, collectives and spaces to confront the concept of race through, the activation of interdisciplinary work and a democratized exploration” (The Racial Imaginary Institute).

The first web issue focuses on “constructions, deconstructions, and visualizations of/around whiteness, white identity, white rage/fragility/violence, and white dominant structures” (The Racial Imaginary Institute). Whiteness as the first theme was ­­­­­deliberate, investigating white dominance and “America’s commitment to whiteness” says Rankine, is the first step in dismantling racism and the concept of race. The website will collect submissions throughout the year and is capable of hosting all types of media. This will allow for a variety of voices to be heard across artistic disciplines to show different manifestations of lived experience within the dominant structures of whiteness.

'Tulsa Man' by Alexandra Bell

‘Tulsa Man’ by Alexandra Bell

“I don’t think I will ever live in a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Bell. A graduate of Columbia’s Journalism school Bell professes that it mostly, “made [her] a very snobby reader.” She critiques the latent racism within journalism through creating counter-narratives by editing articles from The New York Times, enlarging them tenfold and wheat pasting them in public spaces throughout New York City, predominantly Brooklyn. Her most well-known work is “A Teenager with Promise” a commentary of the inept coverage by the paper over Michael Brown’s murder. Her pieces are diptychs with one panel featuring a redacted and edited copy of the original article noting the language choices that sustain the dominant white narrative; the second panel is her visual representation of the more accurate counter-narrative.

'Absolut Power' by Hank Willis Thomas

‘Absolut Power’ by Hank Willis Thomas

“Race is the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” Hank Willis Thomas tells the audience. Thomas is a conceptual artist whose body of work intersects on ideas of identity, commodity, and pop culture. He believes that “black identity” is fabricated, co-opted and capitalized upon by whiteness. Most known for his series B®anded consisting of manipulated photographs to explore themes of the black body as a commodity from the time of slavery to the present day. One of his most striking pieces is Absolut Power, a play on the Absolut vodka ad campaigns, filling the iconic bottle’s silhouette with the diagram of the Brooke’s slave ship.

“Through archives, the past is controlled[,]” Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook remind us, “[c]ertain stories are privileged and others marginalized” (1). The institution of the archive “represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going” (Schwartz and Cook 1). These are the exact issues the institute sets out to tackle. Racism is a social construct, it is built upon privilege and power that is either overt or subconcious. When a police officer shoots a black man his defense most often that he was afraid. But afraid of what? White dominance has controlled the narrative surrounding black bodies since we kidnapped them from their homes and enslaved them here on our soil. We have allowed this narrative to continue unchecked actively and passively in all corners of society. In archives specifically, it can be seen in the collection process. It is not uncommon to search records under the “Black History” heading only to find files filled with solely caricature advertising, gruesome accounts of lynching, or similar narratives that place people of color as the victimized other. These narrow collections focus on “Black History” from a controlled white perspective.

As a writer and scholar of African history and diaspora, Arturo Schomburg, for whom the center is dedicated, came up against many who were quick to say that people of color had no history. He went on to amass the largest collection of artifacts and records of black history to preserve the history and culture which society deemed illegitimate. He strove to preserve the range of black experiences, from excellence to exploitation, rather than focusing on the suffering and stereotypes. That to him was not African history it was the history of white dominance and oppression. Because of his legacy ­­­­we have the records that are the literal actual narrative of black experience and not just what white archivist and society have deemed the acceptable history.

The Racial Imaginary Institute seeks to expound upon the ideas of Shomburg by collecting and creating a “deep memory archive” (Brooks) of artistic manifestations of lived experience. It will serve to capture not just our history past, but also our history current. This is a pointed effort to start the conversation now rather than wait for our future historians to interpret the evidence. This is a new way of collecting and disseminating information through active community participation that will circumvent the power still held in the institution of the archive.

The Racial Imaginary Institute

The Racial Imaginary Institute

Works Referenced:“About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.” Nypl.org, New York Public Library , www.nypl.org/about/locations/schomburg.

Charlton, Lauretta. “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/claudia-rankines-home-for-the-racial-imaginary.

Félix, Doreen St. “The.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-radical-edits-of-alexandra-bell.

“HANK WILLIS THOMAS, BRANDED.” Jack Shainman Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, www.jackshainman.com/exhibitions/past/2006/thomas/. Artist page.

Rankine, Claudia, Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, Alexandra Bell, and Hank Willis Thomas. “Artist and the Archive: Deconstructing Racial Imagination at the Schomburg” New York Public Library Schomburg Center. 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York. 26 Sept. 2017. Artist Panel Discussion. https://livestream.com/schomburgcenter/events/7642692/videos/163402668

Schwartz, Joan M, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science : International Journal on Recorded Information. (2002). Print.

“The Racial Imaginary Institute.” The Racial Imaginary Institute, The Racial Imaginary Institute, theracialimaginary.org/.


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