This February when TikTok announced their first ever Black History Month promotion campaign, their support for Black creators was more unique than TikTok expected. Following the playbook of other prominent platforms, TikTok sponsored Black creators to create new content and adjusted the algorithm to promote those creators. Yet even as TikTok, which is struggling to manage its reputation with US politicians, amplifies Black voices this year, other platforms have been strangely silent.

Aside from TikTok, Black History Month was barely visible in people’s timelines this year. Just three years after the murder of George Floyd and the resulting donation theater toward racial justice from corporate America, brand partnerships are drying up for Black creators. YouTube has no Black History month program this year (the YouTube press team did not respond to a request for comment).  Google and Facebook’s last Black History Month promotions were in 2021. Twitter doesn’t even have staff to answer questions about diversity programs after the head of Twitter Voices left last year. And Spotify, which promised $100m toward marginalized creators that has yet to be realized,  published a zine this year. The result? For many people online, Black History Month is passing by without a trace. This silence is not going unnoticed.

The rise and decline of Black History Month promotions by online platforms is a powerful case study in the function of algorithms in society— and the role of powerful corporations in shaping what people know and value. For several years, it was a ritual for companies to put their thumb on the scale of platform algorithms, partly to transform racism that companies often claim they can’t reliably manage. Does it work? And what would it actually mean for such algorithmic transformations to work? In this post, we share early ideas in a longer research project. We have some initial questions, and we want to hear your questions too, especially if you are a creator:

  • How can we interpret algorithm promotion of Black History Month in the longer trend of corporate promotion of Black culture and history?
  • Who is served by corporate promotions of marginalized voices at times like Black History Month, Pride Month, and Latinx Heritage Month?
  • What effects do Black History month promotions have on the revenue, visibility, and harassment faced by creators?
  • Can annual changes to recommender systems make a difference on systemic racism, or are they just another example of cosmetic diversity from corporate America?

Please contact us here if you have questions or ideas to share about Black History Month and Algorithms.

What Does Black History Month Do?

People have debated the purpose and value of Black History Month since it was first created in 1926 by the historian and journalist Dr. Carter G. Woodson. As a Black historian with a PhD from Harvard, Woodson hoped that promoting Black History could improve race relations in the U.S., dispel misinformation about Black Americans, and increase demand for the work of Black historians. 

How do you bootstrap the recognition of a marginalized culture in a society that’s inclined to ignore, dismiss and distort the historical record? Woodson realized that to increase the supply of Black historical research, he needed to increase demand—which could then support even more academic research on Black history. So in 1926, Dr. Woodson distributed press releases announcing the creation of Negro History Week. 

The response to Negro History Week was overwhelming. Schools, Black history clubs, and community event organizers responded with a flood of requests. By the 1930s, Negro History week had grown well beyond Woodson’s greatest hopes, creating a market for influencers, educational materials, and corporate media campaigns. Woodson sometimes worried these actors cashed in on the idea without any actual grounding in history (Scott 2010). In other words, it was a runaway success. However,  its own popularity lead to “intellectual charlatans” to co-opt public interest to serve private and commercial interests (Scott 2017). In response, Woodson had to find new and worthy ways to promote celebrations of black achievement.

How do you bootstrap the recognition of a marginalized culture in a wider society that’s inclined to ignore, dismiss and distort the historical record?

Exactly eighty years after Dr. Woodson announced Negro History Week, a group of political leaders and corporate megadonors gathered in Washington D.C. to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In one sense, the establishment of a museum supported by corporate America marked the triumph of Dr. Woodson’s idea. Yet as Dr. Patricia Banks argues in the book Black Culture, Inc., Black History Month also allows powerful organizations to “project the image of being inclusive and equitable” whether or not they actually are. 

So what does Black History Month achieve, and who benefits from it? 

First, Black History Month plays an internal role within Black communities. It opens the door for at least some consideration of Black culture at institutions that might not otherwise recognize it at all. It creates a market for Black historians and creators who might otherwise go unsupported by many of the country’s powerful institutions. And it brings communities together through events, activism, and other collective celebrations of Black identity.

In theory, Black History Month also provides an opportunity for all Americans to learn more about Black history and culture. In reality, while Black representation has increased within curriculums, it has been done in a way that favors dominant history,  narratives, and values at the expense of a diversity in Black voices and experiences (King 2017). Hence, Black representation is often susceptible to becoming trivialized and superficial.

So why do corporations fund Black culture and history every February!? 

These promotional efforts for representation might seem innocuously benevolent. Indeed, corporate social responsibility (CSR)  is understood to be an important aspect of contemporary capitalism. According to Patricia Banks, these philanthropic initiatives serve corporations’ goals for racial reputation-management through the “diversity capital” cultivated by their financial support. 

Companies often prioritize diversity capital where they are responding to a racial image crisis — or proactively as a protective stance should a racial image crisis occur later. Take TikTok for example. Might TikTok’s promotion of Black History Month be part of a strategy to manage its image and legitimacy at a time TikTok is being banned in the US, as a way to gain legitimacy among politicians and voters? As Bossetta argues in “Scandalous design” — design isn’t just about meeting the needs of users; it allows companies to manage crises and position their social reputation to gain political advantage and profit (Bossetta, 2020).

Advertisers also play an important role in Black History Month. Despite persistent racial wealth gaps in the US, McKinsey recently reported that Black American consumers represent a $300 billion opportunity to corporate America. Market researchers have found that Black Millennials, Black millennials watch 73 % more of Youtube on mobile per person than the general population of the same page. When platforms use Black History Month to manage their diversity capital, it is partly to attract advertisers who cater to Black audiences.

Finally, why might content creators participate in Black History Month? Content creators rely on viewership numbers for marketability and profitability.The support that social media platforms can bring from homepage advertising and/or recommendation systems has huge implications for a content creators’ career as it can also affect their brand deals. Initiatives that convince advertisers to prioritize Black audiences also help Black creators for the same reason.

Promoting Black Culture with Algorithms

Online platforms and recommender algorithms have added a new dimension to longer conversations about the role of Black History month in American culture. Black History Month (BHM) marks an especially important time for Youtube and other media companies to spotlight and amplify the black voices. When the clock chimes February, the month of BHM, a number of media companies (might) unveil their amplification efforts with advertisement splashes on homepages, curated playlists labeled “Black History Month”, and spotlights presenting “visionary creators, dynamic, and timeless stories” (Netflix description for it’s BHM recommendation list, 2023).

YouTube is an example of a platform that was once a leader in promoting Black History Month. In 2018, Youtube published #CreateBlackHistory to celebrate Black History by asking “your favorite Youtube personalities who they think is creating Black History and why” and sharing “28 stories in 28 days” as a Reel on YouTube Spotlight channel. Since then, the company has carried out similar campaigns every year— up until 2023 when the company has been silent. YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.

Since algorithms like YouTube recommendations are designed to reflect the collective behavior of dominant cultures, special promotions during Black History Month reveal a sense that Black history and culture are not valued widely enough within American society. They also reveal the racism and bias in the algorithms themselves (Noble 2018). Just as Woodson’s original Negro History Week intended to create more demand for black history, the work of making Black creators more visible during one month of the year is an effort to create more demand for black creators and their work. It also projects a corporate image that companies care about Black culture.

Is the added visibility from Black History Month worth it?

Platforms have several levers to pull when deciding how to promote Black History Month. First, they could change their algorithms to promote broader equity, something that scholars call “algorithmic reparation” (Davis et al 2021). More often, platforms increase demand by creating a promotion on their front page. Front-page promotions avoid systemic changes but do increase the visibility of a small number of Black creators. Finally, platforms can increase the supply of content by directly funding Black creators to post new content to the site, which they often do in parallel with promotions. 

Do these promotions only benefit the creators who get special grants and visibility, serving as an algorithmic form of cosmetic diversity (Ford & Patterson 2019)? Or do they actually increase wider demand for Black media on platforms? Researchers have found examples of algorithm-driven cosmetic diversity on Netflix, which shows Black viewers preview images of Black actors to get audiences to watch films whose lead roles are White (Meyerend 2022). Black History Month promotions are more overt. 

Intentionally or unintentionally, platforms offloat the work of connecting with its audiences to Black creators — people who have already done the work of organically building relationships with audiences that share common similarities of identity and lived experiences. These algorithmic intimacies facilitate trust-building and community and become sites of consumer extraction for brands and modern media platforms.

Outside of Black History Month, creators aren’t sure their content is given a fair chance to be seen. In 2020, a group of content creators sued Google for bias in how their algorithms promoted videos, subjecting content creators to demonetization on video content. Courts chose not to take up their collective action to address grievances on the grounds that personal belief is not sufficient to satisfy federal pleading standards that Youtube intentionally racially  discriminated against them.

Is the added visibility from Black History Month worth it? While some creators may experience increased visibility and revenue, they also risk increased harassment. Black Twitch creators often content with “hate raids”, a phenomenon where viewers bomb streamers with abusive comments. Twitch attempted to make amends through Black History Month highlights and other site backed promotional events but continues to fall short in protecting it’s Black and other marginalized creators from racism and abuse.

Finally, what happens when companies decide to stop promoting during  Black History Month?

Black people online are noticing that the investment and representation that platforms committed themselves to in the years following the biggest global social movement of the 21st century, is dwindling. 

Black History Month isn’t giving like it used to. What’s up with that? 

About Our Research Project

Here at CAT Lab, Jennifer is starting a new project on the role of algorithms in Black History Month and other cultural celebrations. Over the next year, we plan to interview content creators, analyze donated data on audience trends and harassment— and study the behavior of platform algorithms before, during, and after Black History Month.

We’re especially interested to understand the experiences of creators who have been promoted by these campaigns, as well as the lower and middle tier marginalized content creators who haven’t received the small number of grants or front page promotions provided by companies. We want to understand their experiences of Black History Month and how they navigate AI driven platforms in order to be visible while managing the risks of visibility.

Ever since Dr. Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week, Black Americans have wrestled with the forces of acknowledgment, representation, and tokenism bound up in its celebration. In the 21st century, the people made visible by changes in platform algorithms each February are asking similar questions. We hope our research helps make sense of this moment, the opportunity it enables, and the harms it sometimes introduces into people’s lives.

If you’re a creator, an algorithm-maker, or someone who has access to audience data, we would love to talk to you. Contact us, here.