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Privacy & Racial Justice

October 04, 2023

In an article published in the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology, Melany Amarikwa L’24 explores the harms perpetuated by TikTok’s unique use of recommendation algorithms.

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School nurtures the intellectual development of law students by providing rich opportunities to engage in novel legal scholarship. Melany Amarikwa L’24 recently published “Social Media Platforms’ Reckoning: The Harmful Impact of TikTok’s Algorithm on People of Color” in the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology. In the article, Amarikwa argues that TikTok’s application of recommendation algorithms poses unique harms of people of color, including active and passive discrimination perpetuated on the social media platform.

“While technological advancements have the potential to enhance efficiency, it is imperative for companies and developers to adapt these technologies in response to community concerns regarding the disproportionate impact and harm,” Amarikwa said.

“The findings of possible harms presented in the article serve as a warning to other social media platforms using similar algorithms. I hope to continue researching the topic and addressing how social media platforms’ use of AI impacts marginalized groups.”

Encouraging Pathbreaking Scholarship

Taking “Privacy and Racial Justice” with Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, inspired Amarikwa to pursue publication.

Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of PhilosophyAllen has taught privacy and data protection law for 20 years and, in 2021, designed “Privacy and Racial Justice” to examine the history and application of legal concepts of privacy through the lens of race. Concurrent with the inaugural offering of this innovative course, Allen was collaborating with other scholars to write a textbook on privacy and racial justice. Students, like Amarikwa, had the opportunity to provide feedback on select sections of the forthcoming text.

“Professor Allen expressed a desire to uncover scholarly articles delving into instances of racial bias on digital platforms,” Amarikwa said. “However, the existing literature was deficient in this respect. In collaboration with Professor Allen and Penn Carey Law alums, I set out to address this gap in scholarship.”

“Only in the past several years have scholars begun to look closely at privacy and racial justice, and I am encouraging my students to become part of a new generation of scholars who write and publish in this area,” Allen said.

“My course demonstrates, through history and jurisprudence, that people of color have not benefitted as much as they should from existing privacy laws, and that the harsh impact of emerging technologies on people of color is a reason to expand and improve norms and laws with equity and respect in mind. Melany wrote precisely the kind of analysis the literature needs. I am proud of her original and important work.”

The Case of Comprehensive Privacy Law

While the use of algorithms in social media platforms is now new, Amarikwa says that TikTok’s recommendation algorithm is unique in its “exceptional ability” to effectively predict and deliver content in order to keep TikTok users engaged on the platform. In addition, Amarikwa’s research presents TikTok as a petri dish that incubates and exacerbates discrimination; digital blackface and economic exploitation; social stigma around mental health and seeking support; and many other issues. Regulation may seem like an obvious first step, and Amarikwa says addressing these concerns on social media requires more.

“Regulating these kinds of algorithms alone would not resolve these concerns,” she said. “While TikTok is unique, it provides valuable insights into how we can approach emerging challenges in the technology space.”

In a comment published in the Journal of Constitutional Law, Amarikwa explored the constitutionality of the AI Bill of Rights introduced by the Biden administration to govern the development, use, and application of artificial intelligence. In “Social Media Platforms’ Reckoning,” Amarikwa makes the case for a more holistic approach that goes beyond regulation or the AI Bill of Rights.

“The AI Bill of Rights represents a positive step forward, it still falls short in certain aspects,” she said. “I hope my research provides guidance and insights that can be applied to draft a comprehensive, adaptable privacy law that addresses unforeseen situations such as the discrimination and harms precipitating from TikTok’s use of recommendation algorithms.”

Read more pathbreaking research and scholarship by the Penn Carey Law community.