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‘When regulating artificial intelligence, we must place race and gender at the center of the debate’

Brazilian anthropologist Fernanda K. Martins — director of the Internet Lab research center — reflects on the subjects of inequality and digital regulation in one of the most hyper-connected countries in the world

Fernanda K. MartinsPhoto: Avener Prado | Video: EPV
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

One of the most recent research projects organized by 32-year-old Brazilian anthropologist Fernanda K. Martins found that platforms such as Spotify recommend more male artists to users than women, regardless of the musical genre being searched for. This is what academics call “algorithmic discrimination.”

It seems logical that this anthropologist would take her research on gender and race to the internet — probably the most challenging universe of our time — given that Brazil is one of the most hyper-connected countries in the world.

Martins is the director of the Internet Lab: a respected interdisciplinary research center, which examines the space where law and the internet meet. She’s also an active participant on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and its effects on society. The daughter of a Black and Indigenous woman and a white man, Martins was nine-years-old when drought and inequality led her entire family to emigrate to São Paulo. She lived in the Brasilandia favela until the family moved to the exclusive Jardins district, where her father works as a doorman.

She clearly remembers the moment when she discovered her Blackness. “It was the day I uttered the phrase ‘you blacks…’ and a teacher answered me: ‘And what about you?’”

Fernanda K. Martins
Fernanda K. Martins, anthropologist and director of the Internet Lab, in São Paulo.Avener Prado

Question. Each Brazilian surfs the internet for an average of nine hours and 32 minutes each day… only behind South Africa and three hours above the world average. What drives this hyperconnectivity?

Answer. Vanity [and] image are very present in Brazilian popular culture. Due to our Indigenous ancestry, the body is very important – we are very used to affection. The internet plays a role [in supporting this] connection among historically marginalized populations.

We wanted to understand how Native Americans and Black people who got into colleges through quota systems (affirmative action) view the internet. They told us that it was important at a time when they were often the only [minorities] among a white majority. [In Brazil], we access the internet a lot, but in a very uneven and highly-concentrated way. The providers offer free internet in Brazil for certain applications, such as WhatsApp. And, among the most vulnerable populations, there’s the conviction that the internet solely consists of those free applications. There’s no space for people to determine what kind of internet they want to build. For this reason, the more we strengthen the big platforms, the less space we find for innovation and creativity.

Q. How is your personal relationship with the online world? Constructive? Improvable? Do you set limits on screen time?

A. It’s intense. Coming from a public school, I wasn’t taught about computers in class, I was self-taught. I started surfing the web at the age of 10-11, on a computer my older brother bought. I had peers who didn’t know how to plug a computer in or how to use it.

Do I set limits? I have taught myself how. When I take the dog for a walk, I go without my phone. The internet produces that feeling of always being accompanied, but it also aggravates loneliness. You’re present, but you’re not.

Q. Tell us more about your research on the algorithms that reinforce inequality.

A. The research was born in an interdisciplinary team, when the debate on algorithmic discrimination was very intense. Some say that the internet is a reflection of an unequal society. I think it goes further. I believe that the internet and technology produce other inequalities. Our research shows that, when you ask streaming music platforms for recommendations, women are less recommended than men, regardless of musical genre. And there the question arises about what’s the social role of the tech platform to try to balance that out. We need the platforms to show that they’re making every effort not to create and perpetuate inequalities.

We were able to analyze the gender [of users], but not the ethnic-racial profiles, because there’s no data on either the artists or the users. Perhaps in parts of the Global North that isn’t important, but in Brazil, it’s crucial.

Q. Brazil is considered to be a good laboratory for analyzing internet problems in general — and social media in particular — but also for shedding light on possible solutions.

A. Brazil is interesting for several reasons. While we’re a country from the Global South, we’re so hyper-connected that most of the big tech companies have offices here. This allows us to build a dialogue with multiple actors involved in the debates and the research investigations, in an attempt to solve problems. Furthermore, we’re going through a wave of growth in conservatism. In the last four years with [President Jair] Bolsonaro, we’ve seen the potential for disinformation, which isn’t limited to the internet. And we now have a progressive government that is intensely considering how to regulate digital platforms. This won’t solve all the problems, but maybe it can solve some.

Fernanda K. Martins
Internet Lab director Fernanda K. Martins, in her office in São Paulo, Brazil.Avener Prado

Q. There are different models of regulating the internet and technology. This is a super broad and technical matter, but what do you think must be included in that Brazilian government’s law? And what should be left out?

A. The main challenge when we think about the regulation of digital platforms — not only in Brazil, but in our Latin American neighbors — is not to import the European model. We need to find out what our way is. Transparency — the possibility of auditing the data provided by the platforms — is essential to addressing disinformation, political violence, or hate speech. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that Brazil — like other Latin American countries — is a very fragile democracy. In Brazil, we need an autonomous body — with financial independence — to carry out these audits, without the risk of being hijacked by politicians, the public sector. or the private sector. Civil society and academia must participate in this debate. The ultimate goal is to offer a healthy ecosystem to Brazilians, where they can create policies and make connections. We must flee from extreme polarization and silence.

Q. You mention polarization and disinformation. Today, we have access to more information than ever before, but much of it is of very poor quality. How do you propose we deal with this? What should be the priority?

A. When we talk about disinformation, we cannot only think about social media platforms. We need to address the Brazilian media model. For instance, how the television channels are in the hands of a few families.

Q. Do you think it’s possible to fight against misinformation when hate is more lucrative than sober and quality information?

A. Disinformation will continue to be a phenomenon that requires a search for solutions by different sectors and social actors. We must think about alternative, independent, local and regional media – about public policies that support Indigenous media, produced in the peripheries, by Blacks, by traditional communities. And then, there’s education. People need to know how to check if a news story is fake or not, but they differ on what they consider to be a reliable source. For some, it’s a YouTube channel. For others, it’s a trusted person. We need [media] literacy across society in general, as well as a commitment to journalism. We have to think about broad pacts, because the problem isn’t concentrated in a single actor. In the Bolsonaro government (2018-2022), many consensuses that we were building around human rights, women and Black people were weakened. Violent discourse and attacks were normalized. We need to believe again in a future built from new consensus. We must actively listen to historically marginalized populations, but the rest [of the population] must also look inward and ask, “who were my ancestors?”

Q. You mean that the historically favored should reflect on white privilege and masculine privilege, but don’t they have an advantage merely for being who they are?

A. I wouldn’t use the term “privilege,” because it causes many people to react negatively, trying to protect themselves. It’s time that the anger — which has been important for the traditionally marginalized to harness — be shared a little. The people who benefited from the system should be angry with their past. We must build anti-racist people.

Women, Blacks and Indigenous people aren’t going to be able to conquer their rights alone. We need a broad coalition, so that people understand that it’s important that society deals with that anger. When we think about the regulation of artificial intelligence, social media platforms, or the remuneration of journalism, we must place race and gender at the center of the debate.

Q. Let’s talk about gender. Female parliamentarians only make up 18% of the Congress of Brazil, but — whether they’re on the left or right of the political spectrum — they’re the main target of online hate. Why is this?

A. When they get into politics, they occupy spaces where they were never present before. We see that anger translates into attacks on women, but not for what they do politically. Rather, it’s for what they represent. When we compare the attacks on social media, we see that straight white men are questioned for their political positions, while women are critiqued for their hair, their clothes, their morals.

Q. In recent months, the Supreme Court of Brazil issued a series of rulings — which some consider to be controversial — against the disinformation that led to the coup attempt on January 8. Do you consider this action to be proportional to the risk?

A. We were very afraid about what could happen to Brazilian democracy. The Supreme Court had a strong presence in the elections and, on January 8, in the effort to protect democratic institutions. The problem is the drift towards personalism.

Q. Are you referring to the role of Judge Alexandre de Moraes, who has been accused of imposing censorship by certain individuals?

A. Yes. But how do we protect Brazilian democratic institutions without this being considered a problem? We need all the powers — and every Brazilian — to assume their responsibility.

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