Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

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

New York University Press, NY, NY, 2018
248 pp. 56 b/w illus. Trade, $89.00; paper, $28.00
ISBN: 978-1-4798-4-9949; 978-1-4798-3-7243.

Reviewed by: 
Molly Hankwitz
August 2022

Author Safiya Umajo Noble’s far-reaching vision for social change through information, includes the following call to action:

“We need people designing technology for society to have training and an education on the histories of marginalized people, at a minimum, and we need them working alongside people with rigorous training and preparation from social sciences and humanities.” (70)

Professor of Gender and African American Studies at the University of California Los Angeles, co-founder and co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry (C2i2), co-author of the book The Intersectional Internet, and board member of the Cyber Civil Rights Project, ]Noble is a leading authority on information science and the Internet. Her 2018 book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism critiques the reproducibility of racist ideology within the machinations of search algorithms developed in western countries, and she does this from the perspective of software programming, cultural “norms”, Black history, the persistence of stereotypes, Black feminism, and the commercialization of the Internet.

Starting with results which appear when keywords ‘black women’ and ‘black girls’ are entered into Google search, Noble argues that users’ expectations - when coming to the screen -  are inevitably influenced by the global dominance of Google as an authoritative source. She then analyzes the search engine optimization and commercial approach that brings about stereotypes in Google search results. Her study focuses upon the profit-motivated logics used to ‘run data’ and highlight content; how search results are listed and optimized for ad revenue, and how companies collect and sell keywords to increase the visibility of certain images and topics.

Advocating for more publicly-minded and regulated approaches to information, while critiquing this pervasive privatized, corporate exchange, Noble demonstrates how search engine information plays a crucial role in reinforcing social bias and points out how, while many users privilege images - text and its programmed hierarchies also have huge cultural influence. The subtlety of this observation is that those learning to use “online tools” now do not necessarily recognize implicit bias unless it is pointed out. They tend, instead, to follow, and are taught to follow, authoritative information, in which the dominant paradigm of online search engines is that of a “democratic landscape” of free and unlimited information.

Noble goes on to demonstrate how, in a techno-deterministic universe, these learned ideas not only feed power but also represent its workings, and how Google, for instance, makes exorbitant profits from ‘user-generated content’ at one point underscoring the effect of racially-charged stereotypes upon Black teenage girls, and their mental health. In another passage, she discusses the search history of Dylann Roof, young mass murderer of Blacks, who inputted search term ‘black crime against whites’ and was sent to the Council of Conservative Citizens “cloaked news” webpage with its 579 linked websites, including Reddit, the New York Times and Huffington Post. Roof, reporting in his own words said his “racial awareness” was “cultivated online.” (117). What Noble points out about this “information freedom” and end user reception is the vast sea of globalized stereotypes and racist representations that inform search activity. In this charged reading, online information and its resulting bias is not separate, random, or ‘neutralized’, as one might think, by its so-called “objective” existence on screen. Rather, online search reflects and reconstitutes racisms inherently “mapped to oppression rooted in the history of white dominance over people of color” and she argues for something called “redistributive justice” (Daniels in Noble, 84). To Noble, search results are “artifacts” that have both symbolic and material meaning in their precise connection to the revenue-generating system from which tech companies make profits; the self-same business model used to create for-profit newspapers, radio, and television (105). Noble’s analysis is interspersed with robust scholarship on the frequent misrepresentation of Black people in systems such as the colonizing scientific discourses of Europeans; the Dewey Decimal system, and the Library of Congress’ card catalog (Marshall in Noble, 144).

In another chapter, the author cites work by Jennifer C. Nash, Gail Dines, Mirielle Miller-Young and bell hooks that provides compelling context for additional commentary on the power of corporate advertising, patriarchy, and the neo-liberal porn industry to engage and profit from online search. Using stereotypes of ‘exotic othering’, Jezebels, and ‘mammies’ found in search results and their connection to enslaved economies, Noble exposes implicit bias towards Black women and girls while expanding the feminist canon to include negative imagery of BIPOC as part of the exploitation of “women’s" bodies in ads. Here she also includes work by feminist media scholar Jean Kilbourne who writes that advertising causes feelings and changes in perspective, “regardless of the consumer’s belief that they were ‘tuning out’ the ads” (105).

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism is, thus, a book concerned with the screen as a place of active information collection and online organization. It raises consciousness about how racist representations work technologically, and it considers how ‘search results’ exhibit inequities and stereotypes as set against the invisible “norms” of “whiteness” and maleness. An example would be her use of the concept that powerful, privatized technology is simply-put, “democratic”. She asks, ‘Can algorithms be racist?” (82) then posits a broad critique. Her Black feminist scholarship implicates a wide-spread corporate-controlled communications landscape including the porn industry in the negative representation of Black women and girls, and further reinforces the need for techno-social change. Moreover, the book is a call to action around the education of designers such that implicit bias is considered in the design of systems, thus stemming the perversity of this tide.

A surefire addition to critical race theory Algorithms of Oppression has the game-changing, analytic cogency of the 1994 publication, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet by theorist Lisa Nakamura. Both texts cut through the dominant paradigms which protect largely white, capitalist, normative discussion from seeing itself, and destroy commonly held beliefs about ‘neutrality’ and ‘universality’ in digital communications. They should be read now and included in information studies, digital cultural studies, and media literacy courses.