Whose Knowledge Is Online? Practices of Epistemic Justice for a Digital New Deal

Azar Causevic & Anasuya Sengupta

The internet, as the primary digital infrastructure for knowledge, exacerbates existing inequities of marginalized communities across the world, even as it promises to be emancipatory and democratic. Through this essay, we offer our understanding of epistemic injustice, and how it manifests online. We also offer possible practices towards epistemic justice that need to be at the heart of any form of a “digital new deal”. We first analyze two critical ways in which epistemic injustice manifests online: knowledge infrastructures, and knowledge creation and curation. We then describe our work to challenge these injustices on Wikipedia and through radical community archives, in partnership with the Dalit community from South Asia and the diaspora, the Shoshone and Kumeyaay Native Americans from the United States, and the queer community from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finally, we offer three core organizing practices to decolonize the digital: centering the leadership of the marginalized and convening unusual and unlikely allies; contextualizing the digital to specific experiences and needs; and countering the hegemony of the “global” through a constellation of translocal imaginations and designs from across marginalized communities. More broadly, this essay argues for the decolonization of digital practices and calls for an urgent (re)imagination and (re)design of technological spaces. This, we contend, can only be done through the leadership and imaginations of marginalized communities, in a process free from material and cognitive exploitation.

Illustration by Deniz Erkli

Who are we, and why do we fight for epistemic justice online?

We are Azar Causevic and Anasuya Sengupta. We are friends and fellow fighters in the cause of ‘epistemic justice’: the recognition that not all knowledge systems and communities of knowledge have been treated equally through history, and the practice of challenging these inequities. We believe that at the foundation of many forms of violence in the world today is the violence of “unknowing”, that we do not know each other as fully or as well as we should or could. The knowledges of the majority of the world – women, people of color, LGBTIQ+ folks, indigenous communities, and most of the Global South – have been marginalized, undermined, exploited, or ignored by historical and contemporary structures of power and privilege. Nowhere is this more starkly obvious – and simultaneously hidden – than in the digital worlds of the internet. To us, the (re)imaginations and (re)designs of the internet can be truly transformative only by centering the leadership and knowledges of the marginalized: the majority of the world.

Azar Causevic was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Throughout my life, I have been trying to understand war, (transgenerational) trauma, gender, desire, loss, and injustice from personal and community perspectives. In 2011, a group of us started Okvir, an LGBTIQ+ grassroots organization in Sarajevo. We began by building community resilience and queer visibility in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, and after seven years of activism and organizing, have been able to put together structured mental health support for our community members. We were also able to build a queer archive to honor the stories and testimonies of LGBTIQ+ survivors of the 1990s Bosnian war as well as queer, feminist and anti-militarist resistance to the war in former Yugoslavia.1

Anasuya Sengupta was born in India.
As a woman from a middle class but “upper caste” or “savarna” family, I have struggled to understand, challenge, and transform my own simultaneous positions of oppressor and oppressed, (non)power and (non)privilege. I lived and worked in India till my early 30s, working both locally and internationally in feminist and social justice movements. In the early 2000s, I tried to bring together (unsuccessfully, at the time) feminist communities with free/libre and open source technology (FLOSS) communities. I moved to the United States in 2007, and more recently, to the United Kingdom, where I find myself a “woman of color” coping with my racialized identities and experiences. In 2016, I co-founded Whose Knowledge?, a global, multilingual campaign to center the knowledges of marginalized communities online.2

The (re)imaginations and (re)designs of the internet can be truly transformative only by centering the leadership and knowledges of the marginalized: the majority of the world.

The two of us came together through the work of our organizations, and are now part of a growing community of practice and praxis around the world that works to make public knowledge online, for and from us all. We can only do this by ensuring that the internet’s infrastructure, design, architecture, content, and experience are governed and led by the imaginations and expertise of the marginalized majority, grounded in the practice of epistemic justice.

In this essay, we lay out the ways in which we understand epistemic injustice, and how it manifests online. We then offer some practices towards epistemic justice online that we believe need to be at the heart of any form of a “digital new deal”.

What is epistemic injustice, and how does it manifest online?

Historical and current structures of power and privilege continue to define what is considered “received” or “accepted” knowledge, who creates it, and how. Institutions and individuals embedded in systems of capitalism, colonization, patriarchy, racism, and LGBTphobia have actively undermined, destroyed, or appropriated the knowledges of much of the world’s populations. This has led to severe knowledge or epistemic injustices against marginalized communities even though they are the majority of the world, and the power enabling the internet. Yet the internet, as the primary digital infrastructure for knowledge, further exacerbates these inequities, even as it promises to be emancipatory and democratic.

Historical processes of colonization and imperialism – by western Europe and the United States – have also produced implicit and explicit assumptions of racial and “civilizational” hierarchies. These assumptions have, in turn, informed and justified the expansion of colonial and imperial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and the slave trade from these regions into North America and Europe.3

Even after the mid-twentieth century, when decolonization movements began across Asia and Africa, as well as among indigenous communities of the world, these assumptions have continued to shape how people of color, including African-American, Native American, and other non-white communities in the US, are treated. Most critically, beyond the facts of whose material resources were and continue to be exploited and extracted, these assumptions have determined whose knowledges and histories are considered worthwhile, and deserving of preservation and amplification. The cognitive consequences of slavery, colonization, and imperialism extend across the world, and often remain unanalyzed and unchallenged.

Miranda Fricker, a feminist philosopher, calls these hierarchies of knowing “epistemic injustice”: “[the] wrong done to someone […] in their capacity as a knower”.4 She makes a distinction between testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. Testimonial injustice “deflate[s] the credibility” of an individual or disbelieves a community – for example, when the police don’t believe a black man on the streets. Hermeneutical injustice is a refusal to acknowledge the “social experience” of someone different from you because you disbelieve a concept – for example, a woman who experiences sexual harassment is not believed in a culture that either lacks an understanding of the concept or willfully undermines it.

These forms of testimonial and hermeneutical injustices are particularly stark in public knowledges on the internet. Two critical ways in which knowledge injustice manifests online are: a) knowledge infrastructures, and b) knowledge creation and curation.

Online knowledge infrastructures

The design, architecture, and governance of the internet’s “global” platforms and tools rarely include women, people of color, LGBTIQ+ folks, indigenous communities, and those from the Global South (Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands, Latin America, and the Caribbean). Currently, over 58 percent of the world’s population can access the internet.5 Of those, over 75 percent are from the Global South.6 More than 45 percent of women across the world are online.7 And yet, the internet does not look like us, and it is certainly not governed by us: a trans person from a country of the Balkans who speaks four different languages other than English, or a brown woman from India who speaks five languages other than English.

Instead, it is primarily the perspectives of white, cisgender, North American men that dictate how our knowledge infrastructures are created and managed. This includes complex issues of the global digital economy and ecosystem: digital (material, technical, and cognitive) labor, the colonization of data,8 and e-waste “management” in the Global North that takes the form of “dumping” in the Global South. In essence, the platforms, policies, and protocols that most of us experience as the “internet” are created for and decided by the “local” context of the United States, making this “local” the largely unquestioned “global” of the rest of the world.

Facebook, for instance, is notorious for its role in spreading hate speech on the internet, often driven by its lack of awareness of non-US contexts and utter disregard for criticism emanating from there. The United Nations, for instance, has strongly condemned Facebook’s role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, where the social media platform did not have a team on the ground, let alone one with expertise in the local languages. This, years after activists have been warning about the unfolding crisis.9 Twitter tries to do better on hate speech, for instance, through a “fact check” feature that determines whether indigenous communities are appropriately addressed, but its curation style guide only describes populations in the US, Canada, and Australia,10 ignoring the 370 million indigenous peoples across 70 countries.11 So-called “artificial intelligence” or machine learning platforms, fed by datasets that are primarily based on white men, notoriously replicate systemic biases.12 With the majority of the world excluded from knowledge infrastructures, such instances will continue to exist and proliferate.

The inability of marginalized communities to create knowledge in their own languages on the internet reinforces and deepens existing offline inequalities. Language is a proxy for knowledge; the fewer the languages in which online public knowledge is available, the more restricted our access to the full range and multiple forms of human knowledge.

Another aspect of digital infrastructures that is often ignored or underanalyzed is that of language. The internet we have today is not multilingual or multiform enough to reflect the full depth and breadth of humanity. The inability of marginalized communities to create knowledge in their own languages on the internet reinforces and deepens existing offline inequalities. Language is a proxy for knowledge; the fewer the languages in which online public knowledge is available, the more restricted our access to the full range and multiple forms of human knowledge.

Besides, the majority of public knowledge online is textual, in English, and created or curated by a select few. A few years ago, Google estimated that the nearly 130 million books published in modern history are in only 480 languages, a tiny fraction of the over 7,000 languages of the world.13 Most of the world’s languages are similarly missing from the internet.14 Of the languages represented, English dominates general online content, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s top 10 million known websites.15 Most scholarly (including digitally accessed) publications are in English: this includes approximately 80 percent of all scientific journals16 and 90 percent of all social science journals indexed on Scopus and JSTOR.17 And while the internet has the potential to represent multiple forms of knowledge – multimedia, oral, visual, tactile, and embodied, which constitute most of the collective body of human knowledge18 – these forms are missing from its archives.

Knowledge content and curation online

Like knowledge infrastructures, public online knowledge is skewed as well, because the majority of those who use the internet do not produce the content on it. Take for instance, the world’s foremost source of free public online knowledge, Wikipedia. Only 20 percent of the world (primarily white male editors from North America and Europe) edits 80 percent of its content,19 and only 1 in 10 editors is female.20 The result is that there are more articles online about Antarctica than most countries in Africa.21 Besides, Wikipedia’s citation policies require as references secondary sources like books, peer reviewed journal articles, and other forms of physical and digital publishing that have the inherent biases of language and location we have already described.22

These inequities also extend to visual knowledge. Wikipedia is again a good proxy to explain why women remain invisible in online spaces. Less than one-fourth of Wikipedia biographies are about women. Such biographies either do not exist or are incomplete. Black, brown, indigenous, and queer women are more likely to be missing and their knowledges underrepresented or deleted due to Wikipedia’s current policies.23 When they do exist, women’s biographies are unlikely to carry their faces. We estimate (based on a forthcoming study) that less than 20 percent of Wikipedia articles on women have pictures. And when women’s faces are missing from Wikipedia, their invisibility becomes more entrenched.

Half a billion people read Wikipedia every month.24 It is among the top 20 most visited websites in the world,25 and the largest free and openly available information base for many other websites, including Google’s search engine and its knowledge graph.26 Content gaps on Wikipedia thus have a significantly amplified impact on the broader internet. When we look for our childhood inspirations on the internet, we are more likely to find detailed articles on the Simpsons’ TV show rather than any information on Lepa Mlađenović, the Serbian lesbian feminist, or We Also Made History, the first book detailing women’s participation in India’s Dalit movement. As part of our archival work, we had to write these articles so they could “exist” on Wikipedia and be known more broadly on the internet, and in the world.

Where do we go from here? Practices of epistemic justice

“Our encounters with mainstream knowledge production must be placed in this historical context. We remember that Dalits and other caste-oppressed people were not allowed access to reading, writing, or learning for millennia.”
– Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, Dalit scholar and activist27

“[The] scientific knowledge [of indigenous peoples] was designated as ‘folklore’ and our cosmology relegated to the category of ‘myth’. Our great literatures in the form of dances, songs, and oral histories became and continue to be cultural artifacts easily commodified and appropriated.”
– Persephone Lewis, professor of tribal practice (University of San Diego), from the Yomba Band of Shoshone Indians

What we have learned through years of working at the intersections of feminist, queer, social justice, art, and technology movements, is that power and privilege are truly confronted and transformed in practice. So our work has been about practicing new ways of navigating and understanding knowledge and the digital, for ourselves and our communities. Three critical aspects of this work are: a) the ways we think and act around the politics and hierarchies of knowledge; b) the politics and hierarchies, even more specifically, of history; and c) how this helps us (re)imagine and (re)design the digital for very different (digital) futures.

What happens when we start understanding the folklore and myths of indigenous and other marginalized peoples as different ways of expressing scientific and other knowledge in their contexts? What happens when we collect “ourstories” from communities whose existence was perennially negated?

Science and technology aren’t the exclusive provenance of 18th century Enlightenment, or contemporary scholars and researchers of Europe or North America. Throughout history, the knowledges of marginalized peoples have been actively destroyed and undermined by structures of power and privilege. For example, some indigenous knowledge systems were regarded as primitive, pagan, and heathenish, while others were systematically relegated as non-knowledge.28 These power relations continue to imbue present-day knowledge production.

But what happens when we start understanding the folklore and myths of indigenous and other marginalized peoples as different ways of expressing scientific and other knowledge in their contexts? What happens when we collect “ourstories” from communities whose existence was perennially negated?

Politics and hierarchies of knowledge

When we first started Whose Knowledge? in 2016, and began challenging the politics and hierarchies of knowledge, we started with Wikipedia. We were Wikipedia editors ourselves, and understood the urgency of making the world’s largest online encyclopedia truly representative of the worlds we inhabit. Even though we couldn’t shift and change the form of the encyclopedic entry, we wanted to make sure that communities like the Dalits from South Asia and the diaspora, or the Shoshone and Kumeyaay Indians from the United States, were not forgotten and marginalized many times over in the digital knowledge commons. This was particularly important to Anasuya, as a “savarna” Indian who bears responsibility for her caste communities who have inhabited and gained from an oppressive caste system for millennia. I also found an intriguing emotional and political connection with my Native American friends whose lands had been brutally colonized by Europeans in search of my own; the colonizers found us both, and our histories and experiences of colonization resonate even while they are different.

The Dalits are the community of over 250 million people from South Asia and the diaspora who were formerly and pejoratively called “untouchables”. The “upper caste” or “savarna” communities of the caste system considered them fit only for manual scavenging and the handling of corpses – practices which continue to this day. As Maari Zwick-Maitreyi reminds us, Dalits have been systematically denied access to spaces and tools of education and knowledge. When we began collaborating with our partners, the Dalit feminist group Equality Labs,29 they had already been working on retelling South Asian history from the perspectives of Dalit Bahujan communities,30 through the radical community project, Dalit History Month.31 We used this as a foundation to map the Dalit Bahujan knowledge we wanted to bring online, including to Wikipedia. This enabled our Dalit friends and scholars determine the knowledge they wanted to archive. Since 2017, they’ve created a huge swathe of new and modified content32 through editathons we’ve helped them organize: over 100 editors modifying 270 articles and creating 30 new ones.

Yet, soon after they began their work, a Wikipedia editor of Indian origin began to systematically reverse these efforts, by removing significant sections of edits and additions, and flagging other edits as inappropriate. To this day, Dalit editors and their articles continue to face significant backlash and reversions on Wikipedia. The biographical article about the Dalit South Asian icon, Dr. BR Ambedkar (known for being the architect of India’s constitution, among many other things), is periodically vandalized. We’ve been building an ally network to push back against these trolls, but the process is slow, painful, and retraumatizing for a community of activists and scholars challenging overlapping forms of power. This is especially so in the current moment in India, governed by a Hindu fascist state that is systematically destroying and undermining all knowledges and histories that don’t uphold a monocultural “Vedic” narrative.

These extraordinary forms of brutalizing marginalized communities and their knowledges resonate with the experience of the Kumeyaay Nation and Yomba Band of Shoshone Indians who we work with in the United States. During conversations with the Kumeyaay elders on bringing their knowledges online, we were reminded that, until very recently, it was illegal to practice Native American cultures and beliefs in the US. It was only in 1978 – within living memory and existence of most of their generation – that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act allowed them to share their knowledges publicly. The elders also reminded us that for many indigenous peoples across the world, sacred knowledge is not meant to be shared openly. Over time, the scientific knowledge of these communities, as Persephone Lewis tells us, became “reduced” to myth and story, their cultures and practices exploited and commodified.

These politics and hierarchies continue to be exemplified in the marginalization of Native Americans in the present-day US. When we first began editing Wikipedia together, Kumeyaay scholar Michael Mishkwish Connolly did not begin with Kumeyaay astronomy and agriculture (on which he is an expert). Instead, he began with editing a Wikipedia article on the Californian Gold Rush,33 which at the time, only made a passing reference to the impact of the Gold Rush on Native American populations. Where it did mention them, the accompanying illustration was of a Native American “savage” shooting arrows at “hapless” white settlers. Today, that section of the article is far more substantial, recounting the genocide perpetrated on the native populations by the settlers, with a historically accurate illustration of a group of settlers pointing their guns at Native Americans. Lewis, who is professor of tribal practice at the University of San Diego, has been working with her students to mark and honor these many facets of Native American knowledge and history, and bring them online through Wikipedia.

For both Dalit and Native American people, challenging the politics and hierarchies of digital knowledge is not an intellectual effort: it is the essence of their own self-respect, self-determination, and dignity as communities. It is emotional, cultural, economic, and deeply political. It is a practice of epistemic resistance and revolution.

Politics and hierarchies of history/ourstory

As part of Okvir’s Queer Archive project, in collaboration with Whose Knowledge?, we collected “ourstories” from our community of LGBTIQ+ activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) who had survived the Bosnian war (1992-1995). Up until then, war narratives had been monopolized and monetized by political ethnonational elites or “eligible” victims and survivors, and did not include the experiences of queer feminist activists or our anti-military comrades. There were no recorded accounts of queer people in the diaspora, in concentration camps, or hiding in basements, queer sons and daughters of those who fought against each other, queers who refused to shoot, queers who didn’t belong to any of the ethnic categories, queers who died, and so on. Ourstory was crowded out and invisibilized by the male, heterosexist, ethnonationalist history of the war.

The interconnections between “war”, “LGBT”, “queer”, “security”, “gender”, “sexuality”, “resistance”, “ethnicity” have historically been ignored in BiH. These concepts have been given meaning only by those in power. As we mourned each victim, we understood that history and justice didn’t include us, that we were not recognized as legitimate to claim justice in the first place. Following years of community conversations, we decided to start by archiving “ourstories” from the painful period of the Bosnian war, even as we understood that our existence goes beyond the former Yugoslavia and its disintegration, and further back into the past. We needed to trace part of our roots at the intersections between three different, but as it turned out, deeply connected movements in the region: feminist, anti-militarist, and early LGBT activism.

In a discussion during our early work on Queer Archive, one of us asked aloud: “Who are my (queer antifascist) people? Yes, we did have the Antifascist Front of Women during WWII, but were queers there? I need to find out who my people are and what they did during this war that we remember. Did they resist? How did they survive?” So many powers have conquered Bosnia and Herzegovina throughout history, so many wars have been fought on its land, and there is such a strong antifascist legacy. Yet, there are no documented traces of queer existence in recorded history. It is as though we did not exist. The question ‘who are my people’ haunted us. This blindspot in collective memory left us feeling dislocated as a political community, and this was a gap we urgently needed to fill.

In October 2016, we started documenting the work and survival stories of our community’s pioneers for the archive. In subsequent years, this initiative has anchored the queer community in BiH, giving us a sense of continuity in our own struggles, and a reason to celebrate. Being able to look back at the past with pride and a sense of belonging is vital in the context of BiH where belonging and pride have normally been reserved for the majority who claim the entirety of history, and exclude those opposed to violence, division, and profit. The anti-military queer women who worked on rape trauma with survivors, the queer people who initiated the first queer organization, or the gay men who, to this day, work on preserving the antifascist legacy are the foundations of our archive.

(Re)imaginations and (re)designs of the digital

“If we taught histories along with technologies, we would be able to bring the genius of human collaboration and problem solving back into technological spaces […] Are we linking technology to processes of extraction in the interests of the elite, or are we prepared to rethink technology from the ground up, rather than naively recirculate the forms of technology given to us?”
– Kavita Philip, professor of history and feminist science and technology studies, University of California, Irvine

The decolonization of digital practices calls for an urgent (re)imagination and (re)design of technological spaces, with the leadership of marginalized communities, through a process free from exploitation. This needs a deeply feminist, human, and humane politics and practice – the commitment to address deep inequities, and affirm, acknowledge, share, and redistribute knowledge without extraction and exploitation. From the perspective of marginalized communities, this needs critical and radical creativity and adaptability, and the courage to speak many truths to many powers, while documenting and centering our own heritage, histories, ancestors, and pioneers.

This work must simultaneously challenge the entrenched political economies of knowledge that exist both in the physical and digital, material and cognitive, economies of the local and global. We need to see the interconnectedness of cognitive and material labor, and honor the bodies, minds, and spirits of marginalized communities. We can only imagine (digital) futures through acknowledging our pasts and presents.

We need to, once and for all, break the myth of the “global” internet that is primarily designed and controlled from Silicon Valley, California.

Three core organizing practices will help us in this process: a) centering the leadership of the marginalized and convening unusual and unlikely allies; b) contextualizing the digital to specific experiences and needs; and c) countering the hegemony of the “global” that comes from a very specific local Silicon Valley perspective, through a constellation of translocal imaginations and designs from across marginalized communities.

Center the margins and convene unusual and unlikely allies

The many inequities of the digital that we currently live with will not be overcome and transformed by those who created them. At Whose Knowledge?, in partnership with many movements, organizations, communities, and individuals across the world, we have begun convening unusual and unlikely allies who will help us dream of and act upon visions of a feminist and decolonized internet. Our Decolonizing the Internet conference in Cape Town in 2018, and the Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages convention in 2019, brought together community activists and scholars, technologists, archivists, librarians, open knowledge advocates, and many others, to think through ways to transform our digital presents and futures. Over 60 percent of our groups comprised women or trans/non-binary folks, over 60 percent were from the Global South, and more than 70 percent were people of color. Centering marginalized communities and their expertise meant that the conversations and agendas for action were radically different from those of a homogenous group of California-based or focused technologists.34

Contextualize, contextualize, contextualize

Our systems of knowledge, our languages, our socio-political and economic contexts are rarely understood, or centered in, current digital designs of the internet. But there can be no digital new deal without a deep, meaningful, and intentional understanding of different and specific contexts and experiences.

In creating Queer Archive, we found that platforms for archive building are rarely contextualized and localized in different languages. Most of them are dependent on unpaid, unacknowledged, volunteer community work for their localization and translation. For instance, Omeka, a popular open source, web-publishing platform for sharing digital collections in BiH is not yet translated to Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian. Simply cross-referencing and combining metadata in English and our local languages requires additional labor, let alone creating metadata “classifications” and systems that apply to our contexts. The internet abounds in these forms of disembedded, decontextualized design and knowledge infrastructures.

Counter the “global” hegemony of Silicon Valley through a constellation of translocal imaginations and designs

We need to, once and for all, break the myth of the “global” internet that is primarily designed and controlled from Silicon Valley, California. We each access and experience the internet not in a singular form, but in multiple ways. Yet, this homogenizing narrative is entrenched in digital infrastructures, content, and governance, as we have pointed out throughout this essay.

We need to counter this hegemony through a constellation of translocal imaginations and designs that also include our friends from marginalized communities of California, and that will make our digital futures what we want, need, desire, and imagine. Both of us have spent the last few years connecting this constellation of communities through our own work, and that of our friends. Only through these powerful translocal connections, can we move towards epistemic justice online and (re)affirm that “our knowledges are urgent. They are practical. They are creative, colourful and collective. They are plural […] Our knowledges are transformative. They are hope.”35


Azar Causevic was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Gender-in-process queer, pronoun they. Queer feminist activist. Community organizer and one of the core team members of the LGBTIQ+ association Okvir and the Queer Archive project. Devoted to sustainable LGBTIQ+ community building in BiH with respect to all aspects of security and safety. Passionate about queer spaces of love, memory, and resistance. Engaged in video, graphics and sound production, and design. Peer counselor. IT explorer. Poetry and psychoanalysis lover.

Anasuya Sengupta is co-director and co-founder of Whose Knowledge?, a global multilingual campaign to center the knowledges of marginalized communities (the majority of the world) online. She has led initiatives in India and the USA, across the Global South, and internationally for over 25 years, to amplify marginalized voices in virtual and physical worlds. She received a 2018 Internet and Society award from the Oxford Internet Institute, and is on the Scholars’ Council for UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. When not rabble-rousing online, Anasuya makes and breaks pots and poems, takes long walks by the water and in the forest, and contorts herself into yoga poses.