Safiya Umoja Noble, Ph.D. spoke to students at the University of New Mexico Tuesday about the causes and impact of racial and gender biases found in algorithms that search engines use.
Noble is an assistant professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California and the author of the book, “Algorithms of Oppression.”
Noble’s lecture covered many topics including racial stereotypes and biases found in search engine algorithms, corporate and political interests being pushed through the manipulation of search results, amplification of hate on different digital platforms and the rise of far-right-wing radicalization due to the anonymity of the internet as well as inaccurate information found on numerous websites.
She said algorithms that control the search results people see first are created with coding written by people with their own ideologies and belief systems, which can push a narrative that negatively portrays marginalized groups.
“There are many types of algorithms and artificial intelligence that our legal, social and political systems have not caught up with, that are exacerbating discrimination inequality and oppression, and that’s what I was interested in trying to make sense of in the book,” Noble said.
In 2009, Noble searched the words “black girls” on Google, and the first results that popped up were surprising, she said.
The entire first page of search results were virtually all pornagraphic and hypersexualized sites, Noble said. This helped reinforce her theory that the algorithms in charge of search results can negatively portray minorities and women.
“I was inspired by the young women involved in my life who I felt had incredibly bright futures and whose community level representations, like being black girls for example, were so misrepresented,” Noble said. “I was thinking about them, and they became a huge part of the inspiration for writing the book.”
Another example Noble gave during her lecture were the Google search results of “professional hairstyles for work” versus “unprofessional hairstyles for work.”
In 2016, she said a tweet went viral showing that the results for “professional hairstyles” were mostly white women, meanwhile the results for “unprofessional hairstyles” were overwhelmingly African-American women.
Noble also said the algorithm used for Google search results can be shaped by people who have an incredible amount of technical skill and can optimize hate speech and racist posts to go to the top of the search results.
An example she gave was during the Obama administration, one of the very first photos that would pop up when “Michelle Obama” was Googled was an image of her photoshopped with a monkey. She said the White House had to contact Google to take the photo down in order for it to be removed from the top search results.
Noble said a survey done by the Pew Research Center on search engine users in 2012 indicated that 73 percent of Americans believe information they find on a search engine is accurate and trustworthy.
Noble said that this kind of trust can blur the line between the truth and misinformation for many internet users, she said.
Noble went on to finish the lecture with the example of Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine African Americans at Charleston Church in 2015.
She said Roof used Google to research black-on-white crime as well as the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.
She said the results that he found only reinforced his contempt and racism toward African-American people. Noble also said that anonymity on social media platforms and the spread of misinformation has made it difficult to identify the right-wing radicalization that is happening to some Americans online.
When asked if her perspective on search engines changed at all, Ailesha Ringer, a Ph.D. candidate in Communication and Journalism at UNM and an organizer for the event, said, “Understanding that you should always take information with a grain of salt, as an academic that’s what you’re taught to do, and understanding even more so that there’s a master narrative behind those sorts of things”
Myra Washington, an assistant professor for the Communication and Journalism Department and organizer for the event, said she hopes people will evaluate their trust in technology.
“Maybe we’re a little too optimistic and that we need a healthy dose of cynicism and criticality when looking at this stuff,” she said.
Isaiah Garcia is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DailyLobo.