A professor from UCLA and the University of Southern California recently told an audience to “stop telling students to Google things” … because the search engine behemoth is racially biased.
Such is the topic of Safiya Noble’s new book, “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.” Noble was the keynote speaker for the “Year of Data” conference held at Princeton University’s Center for Digital Humanities on Thursday.
Noble said that in her previous career she had assisted clients to “get better representation” in Google search results, and as such knows how the game is played, so to speak.
According to The Daily Princetonian, Noble said “corporations who pay the most money secure appearance on the first page, and thus those corporations gain the most prominent representation.” She believes her research “fill[ed] a void” in the conversation regarding “the politics and power systems embedded in different kinds of platforms.”
“[T]here weren’t people who were centering around black women or vulnerable people at the epicenter of the questions they might ask,” she said. “Of course that was leading them to look for different kinds of evidence, or it precluded their ability to see evidence [of racism] that was everywhere.”
For example, Noble said the results of a Google search on “black girls” turns up numerous porn sites. The porn industry gets “prime representation,” Noble claimed, because it is “known for its extreme wealth and discriminating practices.”
According to Noble, this manipulation of information flow reinforces American systems of oppression. She showed cartoons of young black girls from the Jim Crow era displayed on Google, drawing a connection to the sexualization of black women today. This demonstrates the link between historical tropes of oppression and contemporary bias.
“The only way the enslaved labor force can continue to exist is if it’s reproduced on this continent,” Noble said. “You have these kinds of stereotypes that emerge to help reproduce the economic and social power systems and keep them intact.”
According to Noble, when someone searches a popular white nationalist phrase such as “black on white crime” on Google, the search results offer multiple routes to white nationalist platforms and present no potential counterpoints such as places where the phrase appears in scholarly or activist materials. …
Google executives claim it is against their principles to manipulate their algorithms, which could allow them to control this phenomenon. According to Noble, though, it is clear that Google search results for the same words vary by country, making it clear that Google facilitates different results for different cultural audiences.
Colleagues and students often ask Noble why her research targets Google.
“Google is the monopoly leader,” Noble said. “You have to study the monopoly leader because everyone else is trying to do what they do.”
Noble’s approach should come as little surprise; three years ago at a conference at UCLA a colleague of hers recalled a foreign student that had asked “what if the reason black males are incarcerated more than whites is because they commit more crimes?”
Noble immediately interjected: “We cannot let unsophisticated comments stand.” Such questions are “outside the norm,” she continued, and “make black students feel not just microaggressed, but actually aggressed.”
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