Skip to content

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

Share This Post

Virtually everyone uses search engines and then thinks what they find is the truth. One must bear in mind that Google is an advertising company and its clients are often pay Google for placement
on the first page.

So what does this have to do with race? Well the search engine results provide very different results for example previously searching for the term ‘black girls’ pornography would appear on page one whereas this did not occur for the term ‘white girls’. There are other examples, such as ‘three black teens’ shows pictures of convicts, where as ‘three white teens’ did not display convicts, or professional haircut displaying white people and non-professional haircut displaying black people.

An issue is that the search engines often just said they can’t do anything about it and that these results are displayed relating to frequency of demand.  The search engines companies can make changes and have rectified a lot of high profile examples, however these companies are usually run by white people who perhaps unintentionally include their prejudices.

Search engines can potentially be even more of a hindrance to minority small businesses.  A case of a well established hairdresser for the black community was mentioned, they were well established but could barely be found on ‘Yelp’, ranking below all other hairdressers.  Her unique selling point that she specialised in black people’s hair was omitted.   

Facebook workers who perform content moderation, suggests that people and policies are put in place to navigate and moderate content on the web. Shockingly bad racist content unfortunately may proliferate as it can be highly profitable.  Attracting the interests and attention of the majority in the United States, not of racialized minorities.

The African American studies professor and philosopher Cornel West has described the
positionality of how the black community is depicted in the West:
Black people as a problem-people rather than people with problems; black people as abstractions and objects rather than individuals and persons. 
It is apparent that in the case of the Library of Congress, is in direct relation to Whiteness as the norm.

Search results can hold records of human activity, power is held by controlling which records are visible.  In essence the search results hold great influence over the identity and boundaries of legitimate knowledge about minorities. Who has access to provide information in the network certainly impacts whether information can be found and surfaced to anyone looking for it.

Search engines, like other databases of information, are currently limited to providing information based on what is indexed within the network. Classification systems have some boundaries and limits, as they are often defined in whole by what is included and what is excluded.  Therefore if you control the classification scheme you have power.

Classificatory structures are developed by the most powerful groups society. The result is the marginalization of concepts outside the mainstream. When we inherit privilege, it is based on a massive knowledge regime that foregrounds the structural inequalities of the past, reinforced by vast stores of texts, images, and sounds saved in archives, museums, and libraries.

The attempt to address the digital divide in the U.S. is too narrow, focusing on the skills and capabilities of people of colour and women.  It does not questioning the historical and cultural development of science and technology and representations prioritized through digital technologies. The uneven and exploitive global distribution of resources and labour in the information and communication ecosystem is seldom mentioned.

Suggests that to overcome some of the challenges that tech companies face in charges of data
discrimination, the possibility of hiring recent graduates and advanced-degree holders in Black studies, ethnic studies, American Indian studies, gender and women’s studies, and Asian American studies with deep knowledge of history and critical theory could assist working through the kinds of complex challenges facing society.  This is if this is indeed the goal of the technocracy.

This is exacerbated by celebrations of multiculturalism and diversity that obscure structural and social oppression in fields such as education and information sciences, which are shaping technological

The concept of colour blindness is when someone says that they don’t see the person by their colour, they see the person as a person.  This disingenuously purports a more humane and non-racist
world view.  Research shows people invested in colour blindness have been shown to be less empathetic towards others, are more likely to be white and more likely to condone or not be bothered by derogatory racial images viewed in online social networking sites. Silicon Valley executives, tend to embrace their colour blindness as if it is an asset and not a proven liability that precludes the use of racial information and does not allow any classifications or distinctions.

My suspicion is that some embrace colour blindness in an attempt to be less likely to be sued, but it is important to understand that not seeing a colour is dangerous as it misses the point, this means that you potentially don’t see a culture.

Making race the problem of those who are racially objectified, particularly when seeking remedy from discriminatory practices, obscures the role of government and the public in solving systemic issues.
Search engines are optimised for the majority which then suppresses the minorities, with the default being a white person. Embrace your identity.  Clearly prejudice at a personal or systematic way is not acceptable.

Subscribe To My Newsletter

Sign up to my newsletter and receive 5 tips to get the most of your life!

More To Explore

book review

The One Thing by Gary Keller

In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of tasks and responsibilities. But what if I told you that there’s


Subscribe to My newsletter

Sign up to my newsletter and receive 5 tips to get the most of your life!