Thursday, 26 April 2018 12:27

How search engines are making us more racist

By: 

A new book shows how Google’s search algorithms quietly reinforce racist stereotypes.

Are search engines making us more racist?

According to Safiya Umoja Noble, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California, the answer is almost certainly yes.

Noble’s new book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, challenges the idea that search engines like Google provide a level playing field for all ideas, values, and identities. She says they’re inherently discriminatory and favor the groups that designed them, as well as the companies that fund them.

This isn’t a trivial topic, especially in a world where people get more information from search engines than they do from teachers or libraries. For Noble, Google is not just telling people what they want to know but also determining what’s worth knowing in the first place.

I reached out to Noble last week to find out what she had learned about the unseen factors driving these algorithms, and what the consequences of ignoring them might be.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What are you arguing in this book?

Safiya Umoja Noble

I’m arguing that large, multinational advertising platforms online are not trusted, credible public information portals. Most people think of Google and search engines in particular as a public library, or as a trusted place where they can get accurate information about the world. I provide a lot of examples to show the incredible influence of advertising dollars on the kinds of things we find, and I show how certain people and communities get misrepresented in service of making money on these platforms.

Sean Illing

Who gets misrepresented and how?

Safiya Umoja Noble

I started the book several years ago by doing collective searches on keywords around different community identities. I did searches on “black girls,” “Asian girls,” and “Latina girls” online and found that pornography was the primary way they were represented on the first page of search results. That doesn’t seem to be a very fair or credible representation of women of color in the United States. It reduces them to sexualized objects.

So that begs the question: What’s going on in these search engines? What are the well-funded, well-capitalized industries behind them who are purchasing keywords and using their influence to represent people and ideas in this way? The book was my attempt to answer these questions.

Sean Illing

Okay, so at the time you did this research, if someone went to Google and searched for “black women,” they would get a bunch of pornography. What happens if they type in “white girls” or “white women”? Or if they search for what should be a universal category, like “beautiful people”?

Safiya Umoja Noble

Now, fortunately, Google has responded to this. They suppressed a lot of porn, in part because we’ve been speaking out about this for six or seven years. But if you go to Google today and search for “Asian girls” or “Latina girls,” you’ll still find the hypersexualized content.

For a long time, if you did an image search on the word “beautiful,” you would get scantily clad images of almost exclusively white women in bikinis or lingerie. The representations were overwhelmingly white women.

People often ask what happens when you search “white girls.” White women don’t typically identify as white; they just think of themselves as girls or women or individuals. I think what you see there is the gaze of people of color looking at white women and girls and naming whiteness as an identity, which is something that you don’t typically see white women doing themselves.

Sean Illing

These search algorithms aren’t merely selecting what information we’re exposed to; they’re cementing assumptions about what information is worth knowing in the first place. That might be the most insidious part of this.

Safiya Umoja Noble

There is a dominant male, a Western-centric point of view that gets encoded into the organization of information. You have to remember that an algorithm is just an automated decision tree. If these keywords are present, then a variety of assumptions have to be made about what to point to in all the trillions of pages that exist on the web.

And those decisions always correlate to the relationship of advertisers to the platform. Google has a huge empire called AdWords, and people bid in a real-time auction to optimize their content.

That model — of information going to the highest bidder — will always privilege people who have the most resources. And that means that people who don’t have a lot of resources, like children, will never be able to fully control the ways in which they’re represented, given the logic and mechanisms of how search engines work.

Sean Illing

In the book, you talk about how racist websites gamed search engines to control the narrative around Martin Luther King Jr. so that if you searched for MLK, you’d find links to white supremacist propaganda. You also talk about the stakes involved here and point to Dylann Roof as an example.

Safiya Umoja Noble

In his manifesto, Dylann Roof has a diatribe against people of color, and he says that the first event that truly awakened him was the Trayvon Martin story. He says he went to Google and did a search on “black-on-white crime.” Now, most of us know that black-on-white crime is not an American epidemic — that, in fact, most crime happens within a community. But that’s a separate discussion.

So Roof goes to Google and puts in a white nationalist red herring (“black-on-white crime.”) And of course, it immediately takes him to white supremacist websites, which in turn take him down a racist rabbit hole of conspiracy and misinformation. Often, these racist websites are designed to appear credible and benign, in part because that helps them game the algorithms, but also because it convinces a lot of people that the information is truthful.

This is how Roof gets radicalized. He says he learns about the “true history of America,” and about the “race problem” and the “Jewish problem.” He learns that everything he’s ever been taught in school is a lie. And then he says, in his own words, that this makes him research more and more, which we can only imagine is online, and this leads to his “racial awareness.”

And now we know that shortly thereafter, he steps into the “Mother” Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murders nine African-American worshippers in cold blood, in order to start a race war.

So the ideas that people are encountering online really matter. It matters that Dylann Roof didn’t see the FBI statistics that tell the truth about how crime works in America. It matters that he didn’t get any counterpoints. It matters that people like him are pushed in these directions without resistance or context.

Sean Illing

My guess is that these algorithms weren’t designed to produce this effect, but I honestly don’t know. What is driving the decision-making process? Is this purely about commercial interests?

Safiya Umoja Noble

It’s difficult to know exactly what Google’s priorities are, because Google’s search algorithm is proprietary, so no one can really make sense of the algorithm except by looking at the output. All of us who study this do it by looking at the end results, and then we try to reverse-engineer it as best we can.

But yes, it’s pretty clear that what’s ultimately driving tech companies like Google is profit. I don’t imagine that a bunch of racists is sitting around a table at Google thinking of ways to create a racist product, but what happens, however, is that engineers simply don’t think about the social consequences of their work. They’re designing technologies for society, and they know nothing about society.

In its own marketing materials, Google says there are over 200 different factors that go into deciding what type of content they surface. I’m sure they have their own measures of relevance for what they think people want. Of course, they’re also using predictive technologies, like autosuggestion, where they fill in the blank. They’re doing that based on what other people have looked at or clicked on in the past.

Sean Illing

But the autosuggestion tool guarantees that majority perspectives will be consistently privileged over others, right?

Safiya Umoja Noble

Right. People who are a numerical minority in society will never be able to use this kind of “majority rules” logic to their benefit. The majority will always be able to control the notions of what’s important, or what’s important to click on, and that’s not how the information landscape ought to work.

Sean Illing

I’m sure some people will counter and say that these are essentially neutral platforms, and if they’re biased, they’re biased because of the human users that make them up. In other words, the problem isn’t the platform; it’s the people.

Safiya Umoja Noble

The platform exists because it’s made by people. It didn’t come down from an alien spacecraft. It’s made by human beings, and the people who make it are biased, and they code their biases into search. How can these things not inform their judgment?

So it’s disingenuous to suggest that the platform just exists unto itself and that the only people who can manipulate it or influence it are the people who use it when actually, the makers of the platform are the primary source of responsibility. I would say that there are makers, as well as users, of a platform. They have to take responsibility for their creations.

Source: This article was published vox.com By Sean Illing

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