It’s the Algorithm: How Your Favorite Search Engine Promotes Racism

In the fall of 2010, Safiya Umoja Noble was searching the internet; looking for things that may interest her stepdaughter and nieces. However, when she Googled the phrase “black girls,” she hardly got the results she expected. “My search on the keywords ‘black girls’ yielded HotBlackPussy.com as the first hit.” (Noble 2018). Unfortunately, Noble went on to discover this is not a one-off sort of incident. Over the years there have been numerous reports of similar racist results. While Google has since corrected the “black girls” results, I still got similar results when Googling “asian girls,” today, in June of 2020. 

Why does this happen? According to Google, it’s just a mistake. In 2018 at a talk given in Manchester about her 2018 book  Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Noble says, “[T]his is a very typical characterization – It’s a glitch in an otherwise seamless and smooth operating system.” But, this is difficult to believe because not only do these sort of glitches come up often, they also exemplify derogatory, racist stereotypes about BIPOC.

Google’s stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” While that sounds nice, in no way does it suggest that they will present information accurately, or prevent the spread of misinformation. But, why would they? After all, it’s not in Google’s best interest to promote accurate and trustworthy information. This is because Google is not a public good – they are, in addition to being a search engine, an advertising company. As long as we keep searching, they keep getting paid.

The search results you acquire when you type something into Google are dependent upon a set of algorithms. While some of these algorithms employ techniques used across many information retrieval systems, some also distinctly highlight how Google’s interests are far from unbiased. A primary feature of this is Google Ad Space. Individual businesses can pay for their ads to be featured at the top of a page of search results. Because these ads look almost identical to every other result on the page, they effectively masquerade as reliable sources, when in reality they are only there because they paid for the spot. Additionally, Google also seeks to create a personalized experience for their users (ultimately so they can make more money off of us); which means they tailor search results based on previous search history, links selected by the user, and popular search results from other searchers. While this could be helpful in some ways, it can also prove to be horribly harmful.

And that’s exactly what happened in 2015 when Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old White Nationalist, opened fire on a black Methodist church, killing nine African Americans and injuring more. In the manifesto Roof published before his attack, he cites Googling “black on white crime” to better understand race relations in the United States in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. He goes on to say, “[t]here were pages upon pages of these brutal black on white murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong.” However, what was really wrong are the kinds of results Roof received from his search. The first result he encountered was the Council of Conservative Citizens, a racist organization that openly reports false crime statistics. As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out in a video titled The Miseducation of Dylann Roof, the truth is that the “[v]ast majority of white people who are murdered are killed by other white people.” But, instead of finding these facts, Roof easily encountered an onslaught of racist sites. This is due to a surge in white supremacy in 2013; which contributed to the popularity of these sites, and thus their ranking on Google. Thus, the more Roof kept searching and selecting these results, the more he got. He soon became locked in an insular racist bubble, with no contradicting facts or opinions to counter the narrative, all thanks to Google. We must wonder if he would have made the same choices if he had found reliable information first.

Google is by and large the preferred search engine in the U.S. and worldwide, so much so that “googling” has become synonymous with internet searching. It’s no wonder why – Google provides a simple, easy experience for users, one that we have yet to rival with any other platform. However, we cannot create a well-educated public when our primary information seeking tool is more interested in making money than informing the people. This is why, as information professionals, we must promote access to information that is unbiased, accurate, trustworthy, and most of all, not racist.

Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests include the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, the history of information sharing, and radical feminist scholarship. Follow her on Twitter @marylizallen for a random collection of depressing thoughts and cat memes.

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

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