Nov. 22, 2021
About seven years ago, while working as a human rights worker at the U.N., Ashley Lee first realized how digital tools can be used to reproduce and amplify inequalities of power and control. She is now a Research Fellow in the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University where she examines technology, youth activism, and social movements in comparative perspective. In her work, she engages with issues of surveillance and other forms of repression across democratic and authoritarian countries.
Ashley completed her doctorate in Culture, Communities, and Education at Harvard University as a Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Graduate Fellow. She has served as Director of Civic Tech with The Future Society and Director of Harvard Innovation & Ventures in Education. Previously, she worked on issues at the intersection of computer science, technology, and society at Microsoft Research, Stanford Research Institute, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Get to know more about Ashley’s story and expert insights on how we can take action against extractive technology in our interview below.
(Note: This interview was edited for brevity)
Was there a pivotal moment or experience that launched you into your current focus and work
Before returning to academia, I worked in software engineering and human rights advocacy. It was while working with the UN as a human rights worker that I really began to pay attention to the dynamics of power and control on digital platforms.
While working with the UN, I became friends with young activists around the world who were leveraging social media to build activist networks and participate in politics—including in authoritarian countries. I first became attuned to how digital tools can be used to reproduce and amplify power inequalities. I came across young people who were tapping into these tools to experiment with new forms of association and assembly. At the same time, powerful actors such as governments and corporations were using the same tools to surveil citizens and activists, spread misinformation and propaganda, and engage in new (and old) forms of repression. Indeed, long before the US, the UK, and other countries in the West started panicking over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, countries in the Global South (such as Kenya) became testing grounds for refining these data harvesting and surveillance tools.
Pervasive surveillance poses a major threat to civil society, coupled with the rise of authoritarianism globally—policing of protests and dissent is becoming increasingly militarized, not only in authoritarian countries but also in advanced democracies. We can have democracy or surveillance, but not both.
Today, across the globe, we are just beginning to wake up to the authoritarian potentials of digital media (mis)use. In the US, I’ve talked with young activists from Alabama to California to Montana to New York about their digital activism. Youth from historically oppressed communities, in particular, experience heightened levels of surveillance and policing, and face increased harassment from counter-movements and state authorities—both on and off social media.
Design of digital platforms and artifacts has itself become a site of political struggle. To begin to address some of these challenges around the design and deployment of technology, we must center communities in the margins whose voices have been left out. Here I think back to my own educational and professional experience as an engineer and human rights worker: When I studied computer science at Stanford as an undergraduate, I was one of only a handful of young women in a very large department of male professors and students. When I went on to work as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, I was again one of very few women engineers on my team. As a labor rights worker, I was often the only woman in the meeting room. We need more diverse people working on these issues in their communities. We must rethink the processes by which we design and deploy technology.
“We need collective action to address the challenges of the emerging surveillance society… Communities, especially those in the margins, have always engaged in practices of resistance & liberation.”— DR. ASHLEY LEE
In your opinion, what are the most promising ways we can address Big Social’s business model?
I examine how young activists adapt and appropriate social media and other digital platforms to participate in contentious politics and social movements. In my work, I engage with issues of digital surveillance and other forms of repression across democratic and authoritarian countries; across the Global North and the Global South.
Social media use allows young people (and others) to experiment with new forms of assembly and association. Paradoxically, the other half of the story is that using these digital tools exposes young people to mass surveillance and other forms of social control.
We may be accustomed to thinking about social media platforms as public spheres. However, we are reminded again and again that corporate social media platforms are designed to maximize profit rather than serve the public good. Frances Haugen’s testimony in the US is yet another reminder.
Today, digital surveillance has become a defining feature of young people’s lives. Growing up in the digital world, young people are being surveilled one way or another—regardless of whether they are aware of it or not—and whether they consent to it or not. For example, digital platforms collect data when young people attend classes on Zoom; when they use online learning tools; when they use health apps; when they attend protests; when they travel across the border, etc.
In the political realm, as digital tools create opportunities for action, these tools simultaneously empower the dominant elites to surveil, censor, and control citizens and activists more effectively. Here in the US, the Department of Homeland Security used drones to surveil protesters during the George Floyd protests. We also know that in Hong Kong, police accessed videos and images from social media and smart streetlights to track participants in the pro-democracy protests.
My work confronts the emerging surveillance society. This includes designing and evaluating policy interventions, and empowering next generation citizens, activists, and engineers with the ability to imagine different futures. Young people should be key stakeholders in these debates about our digital futures. Yet their voices—and too often voices of marginalized groups—are left out of these important debates. In my research, teaching, and policy work, I seek to counteract this: I center experiences and concerns of young people and marginalized communities. As a scholar and educator, I work to equip young people with critical agency to challenge oppressive data practices, policies, and infrastructures, and advance social justice and human rights globally.
“ We must recognize that young people have played vital roles in historical movements that have brought about lasting changes in our world. Young people need adult allies to respect & recognize their agency and perspectives, & to believe in their capacity to lead movements & social change.”— DR. ASHLEY LEE
What top action(s) can you recommend to people searching for ways to change the way they interact with technology?
Techno-deterministic narratives like to tell us that AI is coming whether we want it or not, and AI will revolutionize the world whether we like it or not. However, we must also remember that technology is embedded in social practices and processes. It is ultimately people, all of us, who have the agency to determine our futures. So I would emphasize human agency in determining our future.
That said, we need collective action to address the challenges of the emerging surveillance society. What can we and our communities do collectively? We want to invest in and build on what communities are already doing well. Communities, especially those in the margins, have always engaged in practices of resistance and liberation. We want to center and learn from these communities. There is a growing number of community organizers who are working on the ground and rethinking how to redesign these systems and processes in the context of their local communities – the Detroit Community Tech Project is one example. Another promising development we’ve seen is tech worker organizing, which has a long history—including here in Silicon Valley. Tech workers and allies are organizing movements and unions to put pressure on their companies. There are also grassroots movements and organizations working to divest resources from carceral tech (like prisons) and to reinvest those resources in education, employment, and other support systems in communities.
Creating shared visions of alternative futures is a key aspect of collective action and grassroots movement building. What are we talking about when we talk about public interest tech or liberation tech, for instance? You and I may have very different ideas about what these might look like. Grassroots movement building involves co-creating that shared vision. This also means that if we want alternate futures, we can’t stop at critiquing existing platforms. We have to actively co-construct new realities.
The Zapatista movement—an indigenous movement in Mexico (check it out if you’ve never heard of it)—talks about designing and creating “a world where many worlds fit.” A lot of the work ahead will be about bringing these alternative lenses to bear on dominant Western-centric ways of being, knowing, and designing.
For me, this means that we equip young people with critical agency to radically reimagine and redesign digital futures. Young people are often left out of important conversations that impact their lives and their communities. We must recognize that young people have played vital roles in historical movements that have brought about lasting changes in our world. Young people need adult allies to respect and recognize their agency and perspectives, and to believe in their capacity to lead movements and social change. They must be an integral part of the conversations about advancing more just and equal societies.
For a deeper look at how social media impacts our mental health, read this ongoing, open-sourced literature review posted and curated by professor and social psychologist; Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge; author and Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University.
Are you using social media or is it using you? Join us for a 7-day Social Media Reboot. Take back control of your relationship with technology and get tips from experts featured in the film here.
A powerful movement for change is growing. The Center for Humane Technology’s #MySocialTruth offers a platform for you to bring your voice to this movement. Share your experience here of how these platforms are impacting your health and wellbeing and help us reimagine the future.