Anika Collier Navaroli
Anika Collier Navaroli’s expertise lies at the intersection of race, media, technology, law, and policy. Her current work within the technology industry examines the traditional balance between free expression and safety by developing and enforcing power-conscious global platform policy. Her previous work has included fighting on the front lines for systematic change in big data and internet freedom work at Color of Change, driving Data & Society Research Institute’s inquiries examining race, civil rights, and fairness within emerging technologies, and teaching the principles of law and constitutional freedoms to high school students in Harlem. She holds a BS in journalism from the University of Florida, a MS from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Fellow Followup December 10, 2023
Anika Collier Navaroli was part of the 2022-23 DCSL/CCSRE Technology & Racial Equity Practitioner Fellows cohort. She’s a journalist, lawyer, and researcher with expertise in technology, media, policy, and human rights. Anika previously worked at Color of Change, creating its tech policy framework, and at the Data & Society Research Institute, examining race and civil rights. More recently, Anika served as a former senior policy officialat Twitter and Twitch, working on the front lines of policy safety and digital human rights.
She just recently published research in Columbia Journal Review based on the DCSL/CCSRE Technology & Racial Equity Practitioner fellowship work, Black in Moderation, about the untold experiences of Black tech employees and the unique challenges they confront in the workplace.
I spoke with Anika about her impressive track record working and researching across sectors at the intersection of policy safety and race. We discussed challenges working as a practitioner in fast-paced tech environments while having a formidable seat at the table and conducting transformative research. We chatted about Land of the Giants: The Twitter Fantasy, an audio series from Vox that features Anika’s story, namely her role in former president Donald Trump’s Twitter account’s suspension after the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. She shares her reflections on the circumstances that led to her being subpoenaed by Congress and becoming a whistleblower.
Our conversation ended on a high note with Anika discussing what she’s most proud of, including her influential work at Twitter that she’s never shared before publicly.
This interview deepened my appreciation of Anika’s journey beyond what we see in the headlines, shedding light on the unique burdens faced by Black tech employees, particularly Black women in predominantly White work environments. It became evident to me that the prevailing discussions about Big Tech and Twitter neglect the long-lasting effects of White decision-making power on the lives of Black tech workers and users.
It goes without saying that Anika Collier Navaroli is a force to be reckoned with.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tara: Can you talk about the fellowship project you worked on and some of the probing questions you were examining while a fellow?
I came to the fellowship after having worked in Trust and Safety in tech companies for a couple of years. I was paying attention to all the literature and reporting that was coming out around content governance, internet governance, and critical Internet studies. I realized no one was talking about the experiences of Black people inside of Trust and Safety departments, and I knew from my own personal experience, these stories needed to be told.
I saw the open call for the fellowship in its first year and I had always wanted to apply, but I was working full time and couldn’t do it at the time. But I was determined. When I had finally left Twitter, I started working a new job at Twitch, and then was like ‘Okay, I’m going to apply’ to specifically write this research about stuff that I knew was happening and nobody else was writing about.
A lot of the research questions I was thinking about were based on my personal experiences. At times, I also felt like I was other people’s therapist for a while because people I spoke with for the research kept saying to me, ‘I’ve never told anybody this before.’ It was so clear to me that people are literally giving their brains, their bodies, and their well-being to keep people safe on the Internet. I think that’s a sacrifice that needs to be honored and can’t be in vain.
Tara: What have you been up to since your time as a fellow, and any challenges and/or successes you’ve experienced so far?
First, shout out to the fellowship! I can’t sing its praises enough and how wonderful and flexible folks were to me and my situation. I was literally a sketch ball and a flake and I couldn’t explain why, but everybody still was so nice to me. I felt like the worst fellow ever. I would get subpoenaed by Congress and couldn’t show up to meetings sometimes. And still everyone was so nice. It was such a great space.
To be very honest with you, everyone was so supportive during a time in my life when everything else was so unstable. No one was pressuring me. I think it was the latitude that really allowed me to get the research done right. I still don’t know how I ended up getting the research done because I did my interviews during a very short window between two depositions I gave to Congress. I remember this because I was doing depositions while prepping for interviews. I was also working full-time at Twitch for a while. I was in and out of the research for some time. But my entire situation ended up contributing to the research.
The research ended up taking much longer than I thought because I got subpoenaed by Congress, and the whole whistleblower thing ended up changing my life. Anyone who conducts research knows that it takes a lot of time to go through interview transcripts. So, at the time, the interviews sat there to be really honest with you. Eventually, however, I got a month break, which afforded me the time to write up my research.
I realize now going back to the transcripts how traumatizing it was, but also very healing. No one is telling these stories, so to be able to tell six different stories about the same horrible experience is a very real and powerful thing.
Since my fellowship ended, I’ve been working at another fellowship at the Tow Center at Columbia Journalism School. They were also very helpful in editing my research. I had a really great editor over there who advised me to add recommendations. So, I added a whole new section with recommendations, and the end result was a published paper on Black in Moderation in Columbia Journalism Review.
After the paper was published, I had a lot of really affirmational conversations with Black people who I didn’t know and who worked in Trust and Safety departments. They all said they experienced the same thing and thanked me for writing about it. So I’m like ‘Okay, this is omnipresent and I’m not just making it up.’ There are so many people from marginalized groups that understood the research and had similar experiences. I want more people to write about it because I’m done! [Laughing].
Tara: Did conducting the research take a toll on you?
It sure did. I’m not a doctor so I can’t diagnose anybody with PTSD, but that’s what it felt like my interviewees were describing. They said, “I can’t unsee the things that I’ve seen,” or, “I had images flashing through my head,” and “I lost 30 pounds.”The research allowed people to unburden themselves. I ended up being the first person they shared their stories with, which also made me realize that my body was absorbing their experiences and trying to make sense of it. I literally had night terrors, waking up in pools of sweat. I realized I was not just reliving my experiences, but also reliving everybody else’s experiences.
So yes, it was very very difficult to do this research, which is why I encourage others to take the work I’ve done and run with it. I also recognize that part of that damage I confronted in the research is my own damage. I’ve been able to work in the industry and push through to conduct research, but I can’t continue the research because I’m placing myself in a sort of trauma cycle. It was very challenging to read through the research because it was really hard to see my experiences reflected back. It’s hard to prove racism in a work environment, so self-doubt also crept up, even questioning my own findings at times.
Tara: I just finished listening to the podcast series Land of the Giants: The Twitter Fantasy, which provides a truncated timeline of Twitter’s history. As I was listening to former Twitter executives talk about the platform, I was struck by how different their views on harassment, safety, and so on were from people like myself who had been on Twitter since 2008. Is that an accurate reading? Did Twitter executives experience a fundamentally different reality than you?
Oh, I have so many thoughts about that podcast! Yes, that’s how I felt working there. I was like ‘Y’all live in a different world, with different stakes, with different environments, and different realities.’ It was wild to hear executives say they wouldn’t do anything different if they had the chance. I thought to myself: ‘You were the head of Trust and Safety at Twitter for 13 years and you couldn’t think of one thing to do differently?’ That was so telling to me. There were some of us, even executives, that walked away with a sense of self-reflection. But there were definitely folks there who didn’t do that self-reflection and it was very evident.
One of the things I talked about on the podcast was my experience with Congress and Donald Trump’s tweets towards The Squad when he told them to go back to where they came from. The team and I went to department heads like ‘This is hate speech,’ the literal definition. They were shocked. They responded as though Donald Trump was telling members of The Squad to go back to the countries they came from to learn policy, and bring back what they learned to America in order to be better at their jobs and at policy-making. Sure, okay. There is a logical leap one could make in order to say that’s what Trump was suggesting. But in my lived experiences, anytime I was told to go back to where I came from, that’s not what they meant.
I think that sort of lived experience as a person who has seen racial violence, who has seen political violence, and who doesn’t think that they are exceptional–I think that sort of lived experience lacks imagination. Leading up to January 6th, Twitter execs didn’t believe that there could be political violence in America. I was like, what? There’s always been political violence in America, just not towards you.
Now, I’m going to rant about this podcast because you brought up [Laughing].
One of the things I did not appreciate was when Twitter executives flattened the truth. When people were tweeting #LockedAndLoaded, and I was advocating for moderation, they tried to insert the possibility that people were tweeting about having a glass of whiskey and not about gun violence. I am a free speech lawyer and if you really think that’s what I was advocating for–to take down tweets where people were talking about drinking whiskey at night time–then I have other things to do with my life. I even took a completely nuanced approach, which was to say if the hashtag is being used by itself, we will leave it up, if the hashtag is being used in another context, we will leave it up. What I was trying to take down was people literally saying ‘I am locked and loaded and ready to overthrow the United States government on #Jan6 at the Capitol’ with a picture of a gun. Hearing department heads’ versions of events that they continue to tell themselves, and the missed nuances, the lack of imagination, the inability to sit down and sift through context, and review knowledgeable recommendations all made for a challenging working experience in Trust and Safety.
People who don’t have the experience are not thinking about people who look like us, and so it requires very different perspectives. It’s so necessary for folks who look like us to be in these rooms because without us, they’re not thinking about us. And if department heads and executives can walk away from that moment on Twitter during January 6th and say they have no regrets, then I don’t know what to tell you. I know I have a lot of regrets.
Tara: Having also previously worked at Color of Change and Data & Society, among other places, how have all these experiences informed your current thinking and approaches to tech policy? In other words, what’s been your takeaways?
That’s a great question. I’ve had really unique experiences. I’ve sat at every chair at the table and had lots of different vantage points. I’ve been able to gain a great understanding of how power moves and how it leads to change. More importantly, I have gained a better understanding about how to move power that leads to change. When I was at Color of Change, one of my jobs was to write their tech policy framework. I created their play book for accountability, and was the brainchild of many of their campaigns that went after tech companies.
Before I arrived at Twitter, I told them that their hate speech policy sucked. Black people weren’t being protected. This was about 2016 right after the election. They asked me what to do to fix the problem. At the time, I didn’t know exactly how to fix the problem because I didn’t know how the Twitter machine worked. I had no idea what levers to pull. I ended up sending an email saying let’s talk about what to do and let me come help. So, I joined Twitter’s Trust and Safety team.
I wanted to figure out how I could insert some sort of influence or power at Twitter. One of the things I worked on–which I don’t think I ever talked about publicly before–was a verification campaign for scholars. I don’t know if you remember around 2020 when people started to get verified at the same time. Yeah, that was me. [Laughing].
Tara: Oh yes! It’s all coming together now. [Laughing]. As an academic, I remember feeling like finally Twitter is acknowledging that we are also influencing conversations.
I’m looking at this platform and seeing that there’s clearly a power imbalance happening here. We’re in the midst of conversations about critical race theory, for example, and Kimberlé Crenshaw is not verified, but Tucker Carlson is. Who do you think is going to drive the conversation? This is a machine and the algorithm that pushes information and verification matters.
I thought to myself, ‘In the era of information warfare, in the middle of BLM protests all around the world, how can we balance information?’ Twitter had run a campaign during COVID where they verified a lot of doctors because there was bad information spreading everywhere. It was a tried and true method: if we know there is going to be misinformation spreading on one side, then why don’t we amplify voices on the other side?
Look, I talk a lot about January 6th and Donald Trump, and yes, all that was part of my experience. But for me, the thing that mattered most was having a lasting impact; the verification campaigns and the speaker series I started where academics were paid by Twitter to come in and share their research they’d been working on for years about Twitter. It seemed like the only information and knowledge that Twitter was drawing from was from straight White men. That’s not what I was there for. That’s the work at Twitter I’m most proud of.
Policies get reversed. The policies that I wrote around hate speech have been unwinded. That was a momentary thing. But to fundamentally shift the power balance on the platform to where other voices were being heard and amplified, that’s what I carry with me from that time. That’s what I’m most proud of.
Tara: You should be proud. I appreciate all that you did behind the scenes that most of us were not privy to. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share?
I recommend the fellowship. I really really do. It’s a fantastic place to take an idea, let it nurture and grow, and do something with it in a space that is especially for practitioners. We don’t usually have spaces to do that kind of work. My entire theory of change requires people from every single part of the table, every single chair at the table to be in on the solution. That requires practitioners and academics. It’s a very unique space of practitioners who do the work and also do the research. The fellowship is a sweet spot that’s going to help carry us into the future.
To learn more about Anika Collier Navaroli’s research project and ongoing work, visit Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Fellow Follow-up is a new monthly feature in Signal/Noise: A Newsletter from the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab aimed at showcasing the work of current and past DCSL/CCSRE Technology & Racial Equity Practitioner Fellows.