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New Book Exploring The Relationship Between British Muslims And Machine Learning Algorithms

I am pleased to announce the recent acceptance of my next book British Muslims in the Neoliberal Empire: Resisting, Healing, and Flourishing in the Metacolonial Era by Oxford University Press.

Started in 2018 thanks to a British Academy Postdoctoral grant, this sociological project is a diagnosis of the effects of social and cultural pressures on minority faith and ethnic communities. Most importantly, it explores the alternatives that grassroots organisations have developed for people to resist, heal and flourish.

While not entirely centred around AI, one chapter of the book investigates and analyses the relationship between young Muslim professionals and Machine Learning Algorithms (MLAs) on social media platforms. Previously, scientific literature has analysed the psychologic effects of the race for engagement rates on users’ mental health and particularly body image and self-esteem. My project examines the social, economic, cultural, and spiritual impact on a minority that, for most, lacks financial stability, media visibility, and political representation.

The main finding in these regards is that the neoliberal economy (and specifically the monetisation of all aspects of life) pushes many to use social media to earn a living, and this comes with a few sacrifices. Because social media platforms and third-party sponsors use engagement rates to measure one’s financial worth, living off social media equates paying one’s bills and rent with gathering as much attention as possible. I have explored three main problems that this phenomenon elicits:

First, is the need for content creators to fit their output and persona into the boxes defined by current trends at the expense of their own agency. These trends can be in the form of beauty standards, fashion, eating habits, travel destinations, lifestyle choices, and more. For example, these trends have resulted, for women, in the emergence of a distinct aesthetic which some have coined the “Instagram Face”: many influencers look like copies of one another. Such results are achieved with the help of graphic filters, makeup, plastic surgery, or, for men, steroid injections. In the case of many British Muslims, this means erasing part of their identity, culture, and moral framework to conform to these norms for the sake of engagement rates, even if it goes against traditional religious prescriptions such as modesty or humility. One example is the adoption of, or aspiration for the immodest and hedonistic lifestyle peddled by the misogynistic Red Pill movement, or figures like Andrew Tate.

Second, is the deification of algorithms. The unclear mechanics of MLAs and engagement make people use religious language to describe someone going viral: “they have ascended to virality” or as popularised by Beth Singler, “Blessed by the algorithm.” Furthermore, MLAs, on which content creators financially depend on, are erected as some kind of powerful entities with the ability to judge, validate, reward or punish – just like a god. In the case of young Muslims, “pleasing the algorithm” means adopting a lifestyle where the daily prayers are replaced by ritual food pictures, publicised gym or makeup routines, and the visit of holy sites (whether Jerusalem, Madinah or Makkah) have been replaced by a yearly pilgrimage to Dubai. In effect, the reliance on God (as per religare, the root of the term religion) disappears in favour of the worshipping of algorithms.

Third is the commodification of culture, identity, and religion. When not erased, culture and religion can be turned into an aesthetic performance for profit. In the UK where the largest proportion of Muslims are of South Asian descent, some content creators have made a career from targeting their peers as a niche market and playing on the nostalgia of a romanticized “back home” in the Subcontinent and islamicate culture. This means selling customised items and clothes at a premium price produced in the East, mostly by companies with little respect to workers’ rights, producing travel vlogs with no respect to local populations and businesses, or selling extortionate online get-rich-quick courses with a religious spin: “40 hadith for financial success,” “Become the Alpha Muslim,” etc.

These issues all compound on top of security concerns where ordinary platform users travelling to their parents’ country have been questioned or visited by the police upon their return to the UK; and the alleged censorship of posts such as those in support of the Uyghurs in China (especially on Chinese-owned platforms), those expressing support to the farmers in Indian Punjab (in solidarity with the Sikhs) or the Palestinians. In these cases, users develop workarounds such as including their message in makeup tutorials or non-related posts with characters permutations or symbols to escape detection.

The main concern, for most users I have interviewed, is about how their identity, looks, behaviour, and discourses are increasingly governed by the paradigms dominant in Euro-America – ableism, racial/ethnic hierarchies, misogyny and gender norms, financial or professional criteria and more – which bear strong parallels with the cultural uniformization efforts and exploitation of people that existed during the colonial era. The difference, however, is that this conformity is not enacted by laws (except in countries like France or China, which restrict the visibility of Muslims in public spaces), but rather by socio-economic pressures. If people choose not to change their looks, speech, behaviour, political opinions or religious orthodoxy, they could potentially face a loss of income, business or networking opportunities, visibility, and, in some countries, legal actions.

Thus, many have undertaken measures such as restricting the time they spend on social media, switching to alternative platforms, or setting personal boundaries when it comes to their usage of social media: be intentional (aware of their purpose when opening an app), selective (block specific content and accounts), and only engage in a critical manner (setting a time when to stop or strategies to avoid scrolling in the void). Some groups (such as Muslamic Makers), which includes people working at the back end of AI-powered products and solutions, have started to develop apps and services more aligned with their ethics. Many more, working with the current big names in tech, have also started to think about how it might be possible to create more diverse teams and for the products to be fair to everyone.

The book is scheduled for publication towards the end of 2024.

William Barylo

is a sociologist, photographer and filmmaker and postdoctoral researcher in Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK where he studies how young Muslims in Europe and North America navigate race, class and gender barriers from a decolonial and restorative perspective. William also produces films on social issues to disseminate knowledge to wider audiences, including documentary and fiction films to equip students and community organizers with practical tools for navigating the world, and help businesses nurture better work cultures. He holds a PhD from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris, France.

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