AI Data justice Data security Datafication Digital world and gender equality Good practices Misinformation Social media and its impact Uncategorized

ICT to the rescue?

What rescue?


These past several weeks have been quite interesting and exciting, whilst working on these blog assignments for ComDev module New Media, ICT (information and communication technology) and Development. I have chosen the theme “New Media, Datafication and Development”, because it resonates with my interests covering the interrelations between the emerging technologies, ICT and human behaviour at large. In such instances, Artificial Intelligence, Biometric Data and human rights violations and their protection during our present time are extremely relevant. To go ahead of conclusions, I can say that one thing is clear more than ever – that sociologists and technocrats can no longer play in different fields, but ought to combine their forces for the betterment of our human condition (I’ll get back to it later on).


I named this blog “ICT To The Rescue” also alluding to Zivile’s earlier post about ICT’s promise to bring gender equality in place. But this post isn’t limited to gender equality, which by itself cannot stand alone without other intersectional issues, as I mentioned in my post about AI and intersectionality. Additionally, ICT and emerging technologies seem to hold more promises for improving humanity while providing access to more information (also – dis-, mis-, mal- information) and connecting humans more than ever before. Globalization and the Internet revolution made it possible, and datafication, new technology and data protection seem to be out of hand. But perhaps the tables can turn and technology might actually fix its broken promises? 


During these weeks, I was writing about particular cases prevalent to our zeitgeist: the Clearview scandal – exposing illegal obtainment of photos from the largest Social Media platform users in the United States for surveillance; the AI’s potential to predict and solve the current Covid-19 outbreak crisis; in my defence, AI was my main study subject because it also affects certain communities of people differently – as in my above-mentioned post about AI and its importance to intersectionality; and lastly – about the positive effects of social media, used for activism and gender equality. Technology and its use, as most of the tools in humanity’s disposal, isn’t only black or white. In this post, I will further explore these prevalent themes and emerging IT and ICT tools in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.


It is important to assess the interconnectedness of the different ICT tools and human behaviour in the present era, because it can not only say a lot about the current state of our society, but also to possibly predict further developments. One possible threat that I wouldn’t want to expand too much on, is the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, and how it will not only affect the economical but also sociological aspects for our future. Social distancing – one of the means to prevent the spread of the virus poses threats for the human mental state, and the inevitable economic and financial crises might provoke unwanted civil unrests and other disruptions, especially when surveillance is now increasing. Could technology come to the rescue in this instance, or should we be saved from it to begin with?




First of all, let’s take a look at data justice and AI. It has been known that AI’s use for surveillance interferes with human right to privacy. This is the case in widely critiqued China’s example, prospects of using it in India and other countries (Taylor, 2017), and recent examples of Kenya and the United States serve as good illustrations. My above-mentioned article on AI and surveillance in the Clearview case, shows not only the power of AI mapping out faces of various individuals for dubious purposes, but moreover – obtaining their photos illegally from various Social Media platforms. Clearview violated the privacy of those exposed individuals by selling their data to various private and public security organizations and also violated the privacy terms of the SoMe giants as well – such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and alike. As a result, all of them filed cease and desist letters but the outcome isn’t clear yet. 


On February 19 2020 – amidst the Clearview scandal – European Commission published a new European Strategy for data (2020), which aims to ensure that “the technology is serving the people and not vice versa”. The action point to ensure that the data ought to serve the people is outlined in “White Paper on Artificial Intelligence: a European approach to excellence and trust” (2020). In this paper, they clearly not only acknowledge the possible advantages of using AI for serving the people, in areas such as healthcare or agriculture, but as well imply that there are solid threats – such as “opaque decision-making, gender-based or other kinds of discrimination, intrusion in our private lives or being used for criminal purposes” (2020). 


Now while it is applaudable to have such a document in place for the European Union, along with the GDPR law, which positions the EU above many other countries in terms of human rights protection in the digital realm; this paper has received some criticism for its ambiguity. While it was proposed that EU will ban facial recognition in public spaces for 5 years, this ban has been lifted. Additionally, the aim for diversity in AI research and development is also limited to EU demographics, which could still pose threats to AI bias and discrimination.


AI and Covid-19


The current Coronavirus crisis perfectly illustrates the prospects and limitations of AI and new technology for the betterment of humanity, this time – in healthcare AND security. On one hand, AI is now being used in several areas to treat and prevent the escalation of this crisis. First and foremost, the scientists are using AI for discovering the drugs and vaccines for this novel virus. However, one of the obstacles for AI to succeed in pharmaceuticals is the lack of qualified scientists of different fields: not only well versed in IT and programming, but from biology, chemistry, medicine and alike


Secondly, new technology as AI and facial recognition are being used in certain countries – not only in China but also in the US, Italy and France for surveillance of their citizens, while using drones and apps to track possibly infected people and prevent them from spreading the virus for broader masses. Now while this practice could be questionable (in relation to the right to privacy), it is evident that this current crisis will shake certain democracies and their approach on surveillance and human rights. Drones, which have been used first in China, and now being widely used in some European countries, are following the citizens and informing the police about their whereabouts. And this is not the only way of using this new technology tool for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis; drones are also being used for spraying disinfectants in crowded areas in Indonesia and India.


Social Media and Public Health


I was writing earlier about Social Media and #FreeThePeriod campaign, launched by an NGO “Period” and its CEO, Nadya Okamoto. This one is a great example of facilitating Social Media for driving social change by reaching broad audiences. As in this case, Nadya Okamoto’s campaign #FreeThePeriod on various SoMe channels serves as a ComDev example in action. Nadya called out menstruators around the world to take a selfie in a bathroom lacking menstrual management products and tagging the business to expose it. 


Screenshot of Nadya Okamoto’s story, which was tagged by another user, tagging a bathroom in California without menstrual products


By doing so, some of the owners of those companies will be providing free products (sorry couldn’t find the screenshot of one hotel promising that), which is a tangible result towards social justice. When you think about it, it is really funny how a selfie, a self-representation tool which several hundreds years ago was a self-portrait (Walker Rettberg, 2017), came such a long way. Ms Okamoto has also been facilitating SoMe for advocating for eliminating “period tax” – and succeeding in various states in the United States; fighting menstruation stigma, providing menstruation education and as we can see now – freeing the period.


Another prevalent SoMe example in public health is the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is currently intensively leveraging several Social Media platforms for tackling fake news and disinformation. WHO was using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and probably more that we’re not even aware of, and live-streaming their sessions to inform the public about this novel virus. Besides that, WHO also used several “celebrity humanitarians” (Richey, 2015) and “influencers” to gain more exposure during this global healthcare crisis.

The Dude With a Sign – famous instagram account collaborating with WHO and Instagram to promote social distancing around the world, amidst Covid-19 crisis


For instance, one of the interesting choices was to use “The dude with a sign” advocating to stay indoors for promoting social distancing, thus, preventing the spread of the virus. Also, famous actress Piyanka Chopra was also facilitating a debate with WHO Director General – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in their live-stream event.


All things Google, all things AI


Current coronavirus crisis seems to serve as a perfect indicator for many issues to emerge, in connection to new media, technology and development. Information, mis-information, dis-information and mal-information, as written by my study mate here, are some of the crises that Covid-19 intensified. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations called it


“Misinformation About COVID-19 Is the New Enemy”.


In addition, Google (along with its product YouTube) has been sponsoring WHO’s efforts to fight disinformation, and Facebook has provided free ads for WHO for the same purpose. 


While it might be possible that Google is trying to improve their reputation – it is no secret about their constant lobbying in Brussels and spending millions for their own interest, such gesture as helping the WHO to fight misinformation is reasonable and positive.


Additionally, Google recently removed labels “man” and “woman” from their Google Cloud AI platform for photos. One step closer towards justice, yet it’s far from enough and could be argued as only superficial. It is clear that in an increased age of transparency and publicity, it is no longer possible to sugarcoat such issues as discrimination via AI and other tools, and one step towards justice is better than none.


However, it all comes down to the issue that there is a vital need of AI specialists from diverse backgrounds; not only to fill the quota of corporate CSR agendas, but also, because:


“Like all technologies before it, artificial intelligence will reflect the values of its creators”


As Kate Crawford notably wrote in the New York Times article “Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem” back in 2016.


Therefore, it is disgraceful to learn how AI and facial recognition to this day labels women with darker skin shades as “men” – what Joy Buolamwini wrote in her poem “AI, ain’t I a woman”, alluding to American abolitionist and women’s rights activist – Sojourney Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a woman”. I explored this issues in this blogpost “AI for all and all for AI?”.


Talking about AI, it is not only necessary to have diverse AI practitioners for diversity, but also for diversity of thought, education and skills. Such as, when I wrote about AI and its positive impact on healthcare and treatment of Coronavirus in this article


One of the reasons why it is so difficult to find the treatment and possible vaccine for Covid-19 while using AI, is the lack of diverse and qualified professionals working with AI: biologists, chemists, medicine and alike, among IT and AI professionals. The world will be deploying AI, facial recognition and other emerging technologies for various purposes – probably so many ahead which we cannot even conceive at this moment; and that more than ever before, humanity must unite – the diverse the better. From different study fields, cultural and geographical backgrounds, and with diverse points of view.  


So what’s next?


Now while we all could speculate how New Media, ICT, Datafication and Development will be affected/affecting life after the Covid-19 crisis, it is possible that as usual throughout history, after dark times, there will be some techno-social revolutions affecting various groups of society. 


While working from home or WFH (yes, now there is even an abbreviation for this phenomenon), individuals and companies will probably invent new ways to facilitate ICT for working – just as now such ICT tools as Microsoft Teams and Slack have been enjoying their golden age; maybe many conferences, business trips and perhaps even field trips (for global development practitioners) will be avoided while seeing how it’s possible to do everything online (or not do at all to begin with)? 


Will ICT and technology at large come to the rescue, or will we have to be rescued from it? Now, at least let’s enjoy that during this social distancing time that we can remain connected with the world and our loved ones via various ICT tools. But time will show how this Covid-19 drama will evolve, and how ICT facilitating different communication solutions will evolve, questioning democracy and maybe even redefining human rights. For better or for worse.


Word count (without references): 2156

References are found within the text in hyperlinks and here to the academic literature:

Richey, Lisa (2015). Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power. Routledge

Taylor, Linnet (2017). What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms globally. SAGE Big Data & Society.

Walker Rettberg, Jill (2017). Self-Representation in Social Media. SAGE Handbook of Social Media, Chapter: 25


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