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Book review: ‘The Digital Closet’ by Alexander Monea

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In this enlightening account, Alexander Monea argues that the internet is riddled with heterosexual bias, effectively forcing LGBTQIA+ content back into the closet through opaque algorithms, warped keywords and other strategies of digital overreach.

The information tools and platforms that we use on a daily basis are supposedly neutral, but this is far from the truth, especially for those within the LGBTQIA+ community, digital media scholar Alexander Monea argues in his new book ‘The Digital Closet’ (The MIT Press, $29.95, ISBN 9780262046770).

Indeed, Monea’s latest offering examines the heteronormativity of the computer vision-powered content filters that currently detect and block ‘pornographic’ images online. He argues that this bias creeps into our digital discourse, and in return polices sexuality and marginalises LGBTQIA+ users.

This book is thoroughly researched and richly sourced, with Monea digging deep into statistics, data and case studies to back up his argument. For example, he includes the story of how eBay purged all content perceived to be sexual or LGBTQIA+ in May 2021 while carving out exemptions for magazines such as ‘Playboy’ and ‘Penthouse’, both of which have a high straight male readership.

Other case studies highlight a trend toward LGBTQIA+ prejudice in the operation of algorithms and content moderation online. This is despite the wider implications this has for cisgender heterosexual audiences, as Monea explains.

The most eye-opening chapter, however, covers the technology behind the issue: where code, coders and moderators exist within in this equation. Monea writes that they all collaboratively make web-scaled censorship possible, and delves into how each level within this, from coders to code to reviewers, works to “reify heteronormativity”.

Monea here also analyses research into the culture and political leanings of the average Silicon Valley coder (statistically likely to be a white men) and contextualises this through a close reading of James Damore’s infamous Google memo where he argued that there may be biological reasons why women are underrepresented at Google and other tech companies and that Google itself was discriminating against conservative white men.

This reviewer feels at liberty to say that ‘The Digital Closet’ brings up facts that are already known, especially the well known fact that the tech industry still has a long way to go to hire more diverse people, but the case studies and statistics riddled throughout it make such knowledge more thought-provoking, diving deeper into the issue.

Most of us are already aware of the biases embedded in algorithms and coding, but this book heavily confirms this. Indeed, Monea examines the image-recognition algorithms that are used to automate content filters at web scale and shows how heteronormativity is embedded at the foundation of their code in their very data structures.

None of the case studies revealed in this book came as a surprise, but together they bring to light the extent to which internet discourse – with the help of coders, internet platforms, and offshore content moderators – has, intentionally or not, catered more extensively to the American, white, middle-class, heterosexual demographic.

In fact, Monea dives deeper into the problem and argues that healthy adult content – whether it be education about the LGBTQIA+ community or simply about periods – has become systemically banned on platforms, while far-right extremist content remains and flourishes.

The book unpacks and answers the question of “whose community” is being kept safe when so-called community-safety policies regarding human sexuality are imposed on online communities. Monea also documents in painstaking detail the hideous agenda behind anti-sex censorship online… This includes an agenda that conflates adult women with children, sex work with rape, and LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC people with sex objects.

To this reviewer, this section of the book is important to acknowledge, as it helps raise awareness of the dangerous implications this may have on marginalised communities within society if governments do not take serious action to tackle this.

Overall, this transparent yet hard-hitting book will ultimately, and hopefully, make readers ponder the question: who is the internet really for? Because, as Monea argues in a journalistic rigour, it certainly doesn’t cater to, nor protect, everyone.

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