Education, advocacy, and action key to advancing gender justice in digital spaces governed by algorithms

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Education, advocacy, and action key to advancing gender justice in digital spaces governed by algorithms

Churches and civil society group must focus on questions of power around artificial intelligence (AI)—be that tech, political, gender, or racial power—and examine who is being included and excluded, concluded speakers at a 9 March webinar at the NGO CSW67 Forum running parallel to the 67th UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

WACC co-organized the webinar “Algorithms, the Digital Divide and Polarization: Impact on Gender Justice” with the World Council of Churches (WCC), ACT–Church of Sweden, and ACT Alliance to explore a way forward an area that sometimes seems ruled by untouchable Artificial Intelligence (AI) forces and inscrutable Big Tech.

Biases and digital divides

Digital tech is a positive force, a source of connection and information, but also is used to polarize, manipulate, and target people at the margins of society—especially women and girls, Joy Eva Bohol, WCC program executive for Youth Engagement, said as she opened the webinar.

“Algorithms developed according to subjective criteria reflect the ongoing effects of colonialism, racism, and systemic power imbalances and exacerbate existing inequities and discrimination,” she said, quoting the digital justice Manifesto from the symposium “Communication for Social Justice in a Digital Age” held by WACC and the WCC in 2021.

Keynote speaker Archbishop Emerita Antje Jackelén highlighted the scope of the issues around AI—not only how it is used but how it is structured, how research is designed and data is sourced, and ethical questions that need to be brought to bear.

Jackelén said AI and other digital technologies have the potential to overcome polarization and the other four “toxic Ps” of our time—populism, protectionism, post-truth, and patriarchy—but this doesn’t happen as it should. “The digital divide bears the face of women and girls.” Women human rights defenders and politicians in particular are targeted and silenced, and democracy suffers, she noted.

Jackelén pointed to research that shows the bias inherent in algorithms designed overwhelmingly by young, white men, with women making up only one of five of those working with AI. “Algorithms spread and reinforce gender stereotypes and misinformation. Women are at risk of being left behind.”

She appealed for ethical consideration to be baked into AI. “If we want to build and maintain democratic societies that are good for the citizens, ethics is the starting point and needs to be considered throughout the whole process and life cycle of an AI algorithm.”

Education and accessibility

Grassroots perspectives from Emma Rahman, a digital media expert from Trinidad and Tobago, and Gladys Nairuba, program officer with DanChurchAid in Uganda, highlighted education as well as accessibility and affordability as key digital justice issues in local contexts.

Addressing digital polarization begins with enabling women and girls to have better access to tech, Rahman said. “Polarization is a product of the digital divide.”

She stressed that “discrimination” and “oppression” were more accurate terms than “bias” to reflect the impact of algorithms on women and other marginalized groups, especially women of color. “We must include women and girls in decision-making and discussion of tech development and implementation.”

The digital divide is the “new face of gender inequality,” Nairuba said, a manifestation of current societal realities in the digital space. The cost of tech devices and internet access is a big challenge for many communities that civil society organizations serve and results in further exclusion and underrepresentation of women and girls, she added.

She highlighted how digital technology has changed the media landscape, driving a shift of the public space—and critical conversations—online. “If we [as civil society] aren’t prepared for this, we miss out on shaping debate and being voices of truth.”

From offline to online

Nairuba urged an awareness of what digital innovations may bring. “The solutions we are using in our physical space should be the same solutions we are adopting in the online spaces—and this means offering support to those affected, moderating the spaces, and ensuring as faith leaders we contribute to the local policy framework.”

One should not only begin in person but also begin in one’s own community, noted Marvia Lawes, a communicator, theologian, and activist from the Caribbean. “From a faith-based perspective, we have to start in our own communities,” she said. “We have to begin offline because what we see online is a reflection of what we see offline.”

Matthew Robinson, leader of the Theological Digital Communication Hub and director of the Intercultural Department at the Protestant Theological Faculty at Bonn University, proposed applying an ethics of inclusion when considering the digital space. “Women’s voices and agency must be a part of the Church’s digital engagement” in a way that is active and engaged, he said. “Participation is meaningless if people are not allowed to contribute anything.”

Practical tools

Justice issues presented by the digital space and algorithms in particular can feel insurmountable sometimes, said moderator Erin Green, author of the WACC–WCC Digital Justice: A Study and Action Guide.

Amanda Strydom, senior program manager with the CivicSignal program run by WACC partner Code for Africa, offered practical tools for individuals and communities active in advocacy or media work to protect themselves without feeling the need to silence their voices. These included steps like enabling two-factor authentication, employing a VPN when on public wifi, and using blocker apps to filter notifications.

Strydom stressed the need to surround oneself with a strong community of allies. “Have a plan in place ahead of a story being published or a campaign being launched that could make you vulnerable to online harassment,” she urged. It is important to know how you will respond and to physically and mentally prepare yourself and your support network, she added.

Strydom pointed to FeedShield, a full-range toolkit developed by Code for Africa to counter online violence that targets women journalists, activists, and other public figures. As well as flagging abusive content, the tool can be used to create a solidarity network and facilitate immediate and longer-term responses. “Being part of community is what is going to help drive your own digital safety and security.”

Collective action

The Church and civil society needs to be dialogue partners when it comes to global debate around innovation and technological change and education in the digital age – the overarching CSW67 themes, said Rev. Nicqi Ashwood, Just Community of Women and Men. “Covid-19 has proven to us that the concerns of women in media and cyberbullying [must] be lifted up in conversations around digital space and innovation and the algorithmic divide.”

Green highlighted that cultivating community and forging connections are key.“We can’t take this all on ourselves. It is important as the AI discourse gains traction that in the Church we make connections and that we draw strength in numbers so that we see this not as an individual project, but the work of the Church itself.”

The question of who is holding the reins of power must figure centrally, she added. “Wherever power might be held in terms of the algorithms, we have to scrutinize that and look at how that’s impacting how we develop AI and use it and the questions we bring to this research.”

Events like the webinar that raise digital justice issues from multiple perspectives are important not only to raise awareness but to make connections across sectors so that together churches and civil society can make more of an impact, noted WACC Deputy Secretary Sara Speicher.

“Through Code for Africa’s input, we have also shown that there are practical tools out there to help protect ourselves, and to give support to others. It’s important to link it all —education, advocacy, action.”

The NGO CSW67 Forum enables civil society to engage with the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the global, intergovernmental instrument dedicated to promoting women’s rights, gender equality, and the empowerment of women.