Social Media Matters In Conversation with Spectrum Labs

As part of our work on identifying caste based discrimination online, and redefining social media community standards to accommodate caste based abuse, our founder Amitabh Kumar was part of a podcast hosted by Meredith Reed, on behalf of Spectrum Labs. Joining this podcast was Justin Davis, CEO and Founder of Spectrum Labs.


Following is an excerpt from the podcast-

Meredith – What inspired you to work in this field of social media and online safety?

Amitabh - We realized how the world is moving towards technology, and that issues of social injustice are being carried over to the online spaces. Our organization, Social Media Matters, looks into three pillars of online safety- cyber bullying, digital parenting (digital migrants bringing up digital natives) and raising awareness regarding fake news.

Our methodology involves doing research, creating awareness content, and going into the community for conducting workshops. We focus on India, but learn from global players and communities from across the world.

Meredith - Can you tell us a little bit about caste discrimination?

Amitabh - Caste discrimination is the oldest form of social discrimination in India, and many research studies have been conducted to dissect and understand the very nature and complexity of this issue. It is very similar to racism, in that there is a hierarchical caste system, where at the top are the priests and at the bottom are the workers. Then there is a category of people who do not fall under the caste system, and are called "Untouchables". They do menial jobs like cleaning toilets and dealing with dead bodies, which is considered ‘impure’. This thought process of caste discrimination has continued to the online space, since the Indian society has not been able to get over this caste system.

Meredith - What are the legal implications of caste discrimination? What does the government do about it?

Amitabh - The legal frameworks are very strong and in place; the problem is with the implementation.

Meredith - What does this look like in the realm of online spaces? What are the specific challenges?

Amitabh - There are some very active social groups which work on this issue. But the key to understanding this, is that since it has been going on for centuries, many people don't realize that they are being discriminatory. Similarly, people don't realize that they are being discriminated against.

In the online spaces, as per community guidelines, the usage of certain caste names are not permitted, as they are discriminatory in nature.

For tech companies in San Francisco, this issue becomes a challenge because it is quite complex. The scale of this discrimination is huge. If there is a trend or a viral video which is discriminating to certain castes, who do they prosecute?

Meredith - What is Spectrum and Social Media Matters working on together?

Justin – We are coming up with a tool, to be used to identifying instances of caste based discrimination on various online platforms. In order to do this, data has to be analyzed by AI tools. However, before understanding data, it is important to have definitions, and to identify data sets.

Amitabh - A lot of nuanced work has gone into coming up with these definitions, and Spectrum had the tools to incorporate this qualitative data.

Meredith - What are the potential complications in the online space in Text Vs Voice?

Justin – In analyzing text, it’s entire context needs to be understood. One needs to understand whether it was a stand-alone conversation, or part of a larger context and conversation. In terms of voice, there are many other challenges that come into the picture. It is an extensive process, and the technology for transcription of voice to text is still lacking.

Amitabh - Content moderation is a very complex task. Things like humour and sarcasm, require a great deal of understanding of context and culture to transcribe appropriately. A greater level of collaboration is needed between the tech community and those who understand the content. The computer sciences and social sciences need to merge to solve this problem. This is what has happened with our collaboration with Spectrum as well.

What is the end goal of this collaboration? What does it mean for Social Media platforms?

Amitabh - Social media platforms take the formulation of community guidelines seriously, however, it is the implementation which is the problem. Our tool will help them to implement their guidelines better. Our team believes in cyber etiquette and we work towards it in various ways. The aim of this collaboration, is to raise awareness about caste discrimination and our focus is to understand that while technology is a tool, the solution to these problems lies with the users.

Meredith - If more people had access to technology and platforms, would there be a positive change or would it get more toxic?

Amitabh – It is a mix of both. Initially it would get more toxic, but as that increases, greater awareness would also be generated. It is important for platforms to take a strong stance before things get worse.

Meredith- Five years from now, where do you see this technology go? What is your goal with regards to caste discrimination and toxic behaviour in the online spaces?

Justin – The ultimate goal is that the internet becomes an equitable space, and that each person gets the same quality of experience on online platforms.

Amitabh – The process now is that the focus for tech companies is to create the product and then once it becomes a success and the company becomes big, that’s when they start thinking about safety. The true win would be to think of safety on day one of the company’s inception, and to integrate it at the time of product creation. I quote Einstein here, who said “Technology without morals is pointless”. Safety needs to be a systemic part of any tech product, and that needs to be understood.

Thank you Spectrum Labs for hosting this wonderful conversation, and enabling us to elucidate our ideas regarding caste discrimination in the online spaces in a clear manner for everyone!
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