Social justice + digital rights during Covid-19: barriers to collaboration

Barbara Paes

As part of our research project exploring intersectional partnerships between social justice communities and digital rights communities during the pandemic, we’ve been talking with activists, civil society folks, techies, NGO representatives and funders in Latin America, Western Europe, Sub Saharan Africa and the United States. These conversations have surfaced some of the tech and data challenges social justice organisations are facing during this time, as well as some learnings about collaborations between social justice and data and digital rights (DDR) communities. In this blog post, we share some of what we learned so far about the barriers to collaboration between social justice groups and DDR groups.

Making tech and data issues a priority is not easy for social justice organisations

Last year, social justice organisations and movements confronted many challenges. Alongside the inherent difficulty of a global pandemic, came a rushed digital transformation that impacted how many civil society organisations work. Data and digital rights issues came to the fore, as systems and processes that could generate harm related to data and digital rights were implemented by states and companies to address Covid-19. From the lack of access to information about how the pandemic is disproportionately impacting certain communities (such as ethnic minorities in the UK or persons with disabilities in South Africa); to the inequity in access to technology and its potential impacts access to health (such as the ability to book vaccine appointments or get medical care); to the deployment of pandemic related technologies by governments; social justice actors continue to face multiple data and digital rights issues during this pandemic.

While many social justice organisations are aware of challenges and harm related to data and digital rights, they’re unable to fully address these without access to dedicated funding, resources and relevant networks. For instance, we spoke to social justice organisations that opted to use communication tools that raise privacy and surveillance concerns for them, because those tools were the most viable option they had, taking into consideration the characteristics of groups they were working with, the resources they had access to and the technical limitations they faced.

It’s been difficult for these organizations to take on extra work related to digital rights, when they’re already overworked and tending to pressing needs from the communities they serve.  Before the pandemic, social justice actors were already fielding urgent demands, often in contexts of political and/or economic crises, while being under-resourced and understaffed. This makes it hard to assess risks and act on the data and digital rights issues that arise in their communities – particularly under the increased pressure brought by the pandemic. It can be overwhelming for these actors to engage in what is sometimes perceived as an additional struggle, such as the fight against the use of surveillance technologies by governments during the pandemic. We’ve heard from many organisations that, while they are aware of potential digital security risks they (and their communities) may be facing, they lack the resources to implement protocols in a timely, context-relevant manner.

Difficulties finding trusted connections and navigating multiple perspectives about data and digital rights

Another barrier for cross-sector collaborations is that social justice organisations are struggling to find trusted connections in the DDR space. In many contexts, there is a perception that the DDR community is too closed and DDR work can feel unfamiliar to many social justice organisations. In places such as Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, the emergence of local DDR organisations is relatively recent in comparison to other civil society actors, such as organisations working on ‘traditional human rights’ issues. As such, groups haven’t had as many opportunities to develop relationships with each other. At the same time, DDR issues and debates move at a very fast pace, making it hard for actors who are not from DDR organisations to engage. An additional issue is the fact that many social justice communities operate in sensitive contexts, and sometimes deal with constraints and concerns that aren’t familiar for DDR organisations, which is also perceived as an obstacle for meaningful collaborations to emerge in organic ways.

We’ve also found that the perspectives that social justice practitioners and DDR organisations have on certain issues may differ. For instance, in the context of Covid-19, many social justice activists have advocated for the publishing of granular data about how the pandemic has affected specific communities, such as the indigenous peoples in Brazil or the Black population in the US. At the same time, for many DDR organisations the default position when it comes to data publishing may be to advocate for data minimization. The lack of shared spaces for debating these tensions and nuances, along with the scarcity of existing strong connections between those sectors, makes it difficult to reach shared understandings and build cross-sector, intersectional approaches.

This is a challenging scenario, but also an inspiring one

As we talk to activists and practitioners, we’re learning more about how intersectional approaches to data and digital rights issues seem to be shaped by specific individuals who hold trusted networks in both spaces (rather than through formal institutional collaborations between social justice organisations and DDR organisations). Throughout this research, we’ve been reminded of the ways members from social justice movements have been working on data and digital rights for a long time, without necessarily being recognised for it or without using the specific language used by DDR organisations. Oftentimes, these individuals are the ones that ignite work that contains an intersectional approach to DDR. Moving forward in our research, we want to learn more about how to foster this type of work and what conditions are needed for this to happen.

Right now, social justice communities face varying challenges: ranging from data and information management, to digital security, to dealing with unequal access to the internet, and to the potential harm derived from pandemic-related tech. In the current context, it is important to hear from communities who are more affected by data, technology and privacy related implications of the pandemic. If we want to see more intersectional approaches emerge in the DDR space, social justice activists and organisations need to be a part of data and digital rights discussions sooner rather than later.

We want to hear from you!

During the upcoming months, we will continue to work on this project and share our learnings as we go. If what we have shared so far resonates (or contradicts!) your experience as a social justice activist and/or as a data and digital rights practitioner, we would love to hear about it. Feel free to reach us at barbara[at]

Image by Tim Johnson via Unsplash.


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