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Digital appropriation - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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Cultural appropriation is defined as when 'members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group'. This is usually an inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption that can often be exploitative or disrespectful. The line between appreciation and appropriation is often debated, and understanding the difference has become more difficult because of the digital world we live in.

Social media has made the world more connected which has, of course, been beneficial in many ways; we have been exposed to different cultures, practices, and people. But the other side of it is that it has perhaps made us feel like we can adopt cultural elements from other groups, often in a problematic manner.

A few months ago, my TikTok feed was filled with testimonials from people praising the Mielle Rosemary Mint Scalp & Hair Strengthening Oil. Of course, I already had it, but I can’t say I was 'in the know' because my mother bought it for me. The hair oil company, Mielle is a black-owned American company that has curated its products for Black hair. However, my TikTok feed was not just testimonials from people of colour but also from people with straight blonde hair. While a lot of videos were praising the product, some claimed that it “wasn’t working” or that “it’s a scam”.

The appropriate response is that the product wasn’t made for people with straight blonde hair. Keeping in mind that most products you'll find on the shelf at a supermarket are catered to non-Black/textured hair, Mielle has now received negative reviews. Unsurprisingly, drama unfolded on TikTok. The conversation centred around the right for people to review products that weren’t made for them or whether those people should even use these products when very few companies cater their products for Black or textured hair. Conversely, other black-owned companies such as Cantu and Shea Moisture have received backlash for changing their formulas to cater to straight hair after they gained popularity – only to lose the Black and textured hair customers they set out to support originally.

Another example is the adoption of the 'mob wife aesthetic' in which people are criticised for appropriating Italian and immigrant culture. While people suggest that it might not be 100% appropriating a specific culture, the ‘discovery’ of this style (long nails, animal prints etc.)—a style which has always been deemed to be tacky and cheap but recently became popular within Western popular culture—should make us question why something is only deemed worthy when its being shared across social media by Western creators and influencers.

And finally, what has really irked me recently is how food has been appropriated because of how influencers or celebrity chefs have marketed recipes or food products on social media. I went to an event on Monday where Nigella Lawson was discussing her work and love for food. She rightfully said that all restaurant menus these days are the same—Hummus, Shakshuka, Turkish eggs to name a few ‘hot’ items—and that we are somewhat appropriating these recipes and dishes because they are now ‘in fashion’ but we often overlook their origin.

These are not digital threats per se but the ease of consuming information on social media has made us forget to think about where things come from. This includes the history of food, culture, and fashion but, importantly, how some people from minority groups have worked very hard to set up a business or gain exposure in these areas. We are often mindlessly scrolling, slowly consuming, and sometimes unwittingly appropriating. Here's your reminder to take a step back and question, learn, and appreciate instead of falling for whatever our timelines present to us.

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More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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