Algorithmic discrimination in Brazil

By Felipe Fonseca and Ricardo Ruiz of Global Innovation Gathering.

Digital technologies are increasingly used worldwide to mediate social dynamics, manage access to rights and ensure participation in economic life. However, the way such technologies are created has blind spots, sometimes literally. There is not enough discussion about the extent to which a digital infrastructure embeds discriminatory and racist assumptions when developed and deployed critically.

Racism is a pervasive and complex problem. Even though it appears in very diverse forms in different societies, its effects are felt by populations everywhere. The public discussion about the topic can benefit from innovative and engaging ways to make visible the intricate tension between ethnicity, class, economy and power.

These questions motivated the creation of a co-design lab in partnership between the University of Bristol, Berlin-based Global Innovation Gathering and other collaborators. The lab focuses on algorithmic discrimination in Brazil, following a series of previous collaborations. It is part of the research project Contesting Algorithmic Racism Through Digital Cultures in Brazil, funded by an AHRC Research Development and Engagement Fellowship and the AHRC Impact Acceleration Fund (PI Edward King, School of Modern Languages). It explores cultural responses to racism embedded in data and digital technologies, such as algorithms, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The project also seeks to feed the creation of videogames and other interactive online resources to challenge and overcome algorithmic bias in Brazil.

To facilitate co-creation processes, the lab is hosting online workshops with Brazilian participants from diverse backgrounds and experiences. The participants include academics, non-profit leaders, artists, educators, indigenous leaders, and high school teachers. The workshops seek to leverage collaborative and participatory processes in which the participants discuss algorithmic racism, games and related issues – such as identity, power, territory, education, and technology. The workshops also aim at generating data and insights to inform design briefings and tech specifications for developing games and other resources.

The first two workshops happened in October and November 2023, focusing on acquiring an overview of issues around technologies and algorithms, racism and discrimination. Examples of engaged games were also discussed with the participants, preparing the group for upcoming sessions of ideation and briefing construction. Some of the outputs so far are the following:

  • For some participants, a crucial starting point is shifting the focus towards emphasising identity rather than dwelling solely on racism. This change is fundamental in Brazil to start building a positive narrative. Understanding the power of identity, especially concerning marginalised communities, is instrumental in dismantling the structures of racism that persist.
  • One fundamental concept raised by participants is that racism is not merely about prejudice or discrimination but primarily a relation of power. The nuances of this difference are crucial for understanding the experiences of racialised individuals. Understanding racism as a power dynamic highlights its severe impact and the structural inequality it reinforces and reproduces. This insight is particularly relevant when discussing indigenous and marginalised communities’ issues, whether in the Brazilian Amazon or the coastal and inner regions.
  • In discussing identity and racism, an issue that deserved attention was the co-optation of leadership by institutional structures. In Brazil, existing power structures may co-opt or manipulate individuals who advocate racial equality. These structures often employ well-intentioned leaders who end up helping maintain the status quo and preventing meaningful change. This raises the need for self-vigilance and a critical examination of leadership roles within racial justice movements.
  • Another central concern in addressing racism was the role of educational institutions. Participants assert that, as Brazil grapples with deeply rooted racial disparities, it becomes evident that racism is often systemically reproduced in schools. Schools tend to perpetuate the societal division that exists between racial groups and for the same reason have the potential to change for the better if properly equipped. Videogames can be instrumental for that matter.
  • The integration of technology in educational settings presents a complex puzzle. For teachers, technology can be felt both an invasion of their classroom space and an obligation imposed by their working conditions. The challenges associated with technology adoption and integration into the educational environment must be carefully considered, especially in regions with limited access to technology, inadequate hardware, and precarious connectivity. On the other hand, initiatives that promote the critical appropriation of the same technologies can leapfrog practices and understanding, as well as enabling the co-creation of situated knowledge.
  • Territory is a multifaceted concept in the discussion of identity and racism. From indigenous lands in the Amazon to the urban landscapes of São Paulo, territory plays a pivotal role in shaping the experiences of marginalised communities. Examining the impact of territory on these communities’ lives is essential in understanding the broader dynamics of identity and racism.
  • Racial categorisation is an intricate issue, with the term “pardo” exemplifying its complexity. This label, which falls between white and black, often obscures Afro-Brazilian individuals’ distinct experiences and identities. This phenomenon underscores the need for more nuanced and culturally sensitive categorisations in the collection of census data
  • Afrofuturism, a movement that explores the intersection of African diaspora culture with technology and speculative fiction, presents opportunities and challenges in addressing issues of identity and racism. While Afrofuturism offers a unique lens through which to examine these topics, it is vital to recognise that it can at the same time conform to a particular aesthetic or narrative, which may only partially capture the diverse experiences of marginalised communities. One participant raises the similarity of terms between Afrofuturism and the Italian Futurism, with its complicated relationship with the emergence of fascism in the 20th century.
Picture of an audience watching a man speaking
Semente workshop: Seeding community-oriented technology policy, 2023 – collaboration between University of Bristol and Instituto Neos

The project believes that the development of critical videogames can contribute significantly to addressing the multifaceted challenges of identity and racism. Anti-racist games can engage users in meaningful discussions while providing a lighter, more accessible way to explore such issues. Games can serve as tools for individuals experiencing racism to find empowerment and those unknowingly perpetuating racism to gain awareness and understanding.

A remark must be made, as pointed out by a participant, on the prevalent theme in many first-person shooter (FPS) games, which often involve white European “heroes” combating “terrorists” from other parts of the world. The racial undertones of such games and their implications in shaping perceptions of different cultures provide valuable insights into how identity and racism intersect with popular digital media and reproduce biases.

During the workshops, several prominent voices and references were mentioned as valuable resources. These include contemporary researchers and activists investigating algorithmic racism such as Tarcízio Silva and Nina da Hora and Bruno Natal. Names concerned with wider questions were also mentioned as Nego Bispo, Lelia Gonzalez, Octavia Butler, Clovis Moura, Ale Santos (known as Savage Fiction), and many more. Their work and insights offer diverse perspectives on identity, racism, and the potential for change.

The co-design lab will continue with more activities until December 2023, involving more hands-on activities to co-create design briefings for games and other resources that contest algorithmic racism. Its outputs will create the groundwork for the development of anti-racist games to happen throughout 2024, in partnership with artist Rafael Coutinho and the Aoca Game Lab from Brazil. The journey to dismantle racism and empower marginalised communities is complex. Still, it begins with a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of identity and racism worldwide.

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