When Google gets it wrong: Safiya Noble exposes how search engines reinforce racism
Google hadn’t even been born — much less conquered the world — when Safiya Umoja Noble was a student at Fresno State in the late 1980s and early ‘90s protesting against apartheid, arguing for social justice and pushing for racial and gender equality on campus. When she wanted to “search” for something, she did it the old-fashioned way, in the library: She thumbed through yellowed card catalogs, hunted through ghostly microfilm and perused voluminous abstracts.
So much has changed today, of course. Google is one of the most powerful companies on the planet, impacting our lives in a significant manner. And Noble has become an integral part of the digital age herself — in an academic watchdog role. Now a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, she’s been studying Google and other Silicon Valley behemoths, all the while arguing for accountability.
Noble’s new book, “The Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” is a pointed critique of how Google and other search engines marginalize people in “erroneous, stereotypical, or even pornographic ways.” She will speak on Friday, April 20, about the book — which is drawing national attention — at Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library as part of the J. Printise Womack Lecture Series.
“It’s a hot topic,” she says in a recent phone interview.
Delritta Hornbuckle, dean of the Madden Library, was drawn to Noble’s keen insight into technology and social justice.
“I know that Fresno State students will benefit from her scholarship in internet studies and get an informed glimpse into social relations embedded in digital technologies,” Hornbuckle says.
Editor’s note: This article was originally a freelance piece written for Fresno State’s Madden Library.
In many ways, those pre-Google lessons that Noble learned at Fresno State, and the real-world smarts she was able to develop thanks to the tight-knit community of fellow activists she connected with there, are a big part of what made her the scholar she is today.
“I could have never known coming in as a freshman to Fresno State that I would have had such an extraordinary experience as a student,” she says.
After graduating from Fresno’s Roosevelt School of the Arts, she entered Fresno State in 1988 as a history major. Most of the time she was the only African-American student in her classes. Often she would raise questions and provocations around what she considered to be incomplete stories that were being told, what she called the “erasures of people of color.”
That often didn’t go over very well. She felt unsupported and discouraged.
One day she was talking in the Free Speech Area to a friend who suggested checking out a different academic discipline. There was a department, the friend said, where she would feel more welcome.
“I took my first sociology class and that was it,” she says. “I immediately changed my major.”
“The Algorithms of Oppression” (NYU Press), which was released Feb. 20 and immediately became a top seller on Amazon, was prompted by a simple event in 2011.
Noble typed the words “black girls” into Google.
The top hit was a pornography site.
As a review of the book in “Kirkus Reviews” explains, Noble’s subsequent research led her to conclude that web searches yielding racism and sexism as the first results reflect “a corporate logic of either willful neglect or a profit imperative that makes money from racism and sexism.”
She soon discovered that other key terms (“Latina,” “Asian women”) yielded similar results.
“You didn’t even have to put ‘sex’ into the search bar to get porn results,” she says.
One of the problems is that people tend to trust Google to be some kind of omnipotent and scrupulously neutral “search engine god” that always delivers the most accurate results.
This trust stems from how well Google and other search engines deliver on basic inquiries. We use it to find the address of the restaurant down the street, say, or the author of “Native Son.”
“Because search engines give fairly reliable results when we’re looking for that information, it reinforces our trust,” she says. “But when we’re looking for more complicated or nuanced information, when we do queries about ethnic and racial minorities, or ask about women or feminism, this is where search engines deeply fail us.”
Google has since changed the “black girls” algorithm. But as Noble continued her study, she realized that it is a more complex issue than simply removing blatant pornography search results. While the algorithms of the major search engines might not be intentionally racist and sexist, money makes things happen. Pornography and other businesses work to maximize their search results.
“This is where you see companies and industries try to game the system,” she says.
And a lack of diversity in the creative class of Silicon Valley — whether it be racial, sexual or educational background — adds to the problem, according to Noble.
“I often recommend to tech companies that they should hire people with graduate degrees in sociology, ethnic studies and women’s studies to sit at the table,” she says.
Fresno State memories
Noble has come back to Fresno State as a distinguished alumna before, notably as the commencement speaker at the African American Graduation Recognition Ceremony. Each time she is struck by the impact the university had on her. She had originally wanted to go away to college outside of Fresno, but family circumstances meant otherwise.
“I kind of begrudgingly went to Fresno State, and it became one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” she says.
I knew I wanted to become a professor at some point because the professors at Fresno State had been so influential in my life. — Safiya Noble
She got heavily involved in the campus political scene, teaming up with a multi-ethnic, progressive coalition. She started her career in her second year as an ASI senator, then eventually becoming the second African-American ASI student president of the campus. She went on to the top student leadership position in the entire California State University system.
Being involved politically on campus had a big role in shaping her life, she says, and helped her solidify her long-term career goals.
“I knew I wanted to become a professor at some point because the professors at Fresno State had been so influential in my life, particularly in political science, women’s studies, sociology and African-American studies,” she says.
One of those professors was Thomas-Whit Ellis, a professor in Fresno State’s theater and dance department. To say that Noble as a student had a big impact on Ellis is an understatement. She joined with other students to lobby then-President Harold Haak and the theater department to hire a Black Theatre specialist.
“That was a pretty big deal for 1992,” he says.
After Ellis was hired, Noble exhibited the kind of organized follow-through she’s demonstrated throughout her academic career, he says. She realized the challenges facing professors of color in the academy, and she worked behind the scenes to address those concerns.
“Lots of professors come here for a couple of years and they leave,” Ellis says. “She was very adamant about me staying here.”
How adamant? She tried out for one of Ellis’ plays, titled “The Colored Museum” — even though she didn’t have any desire to be on stage — just to be sure that the “auditions went well,” he says. (Ellis had the last laugh, however: He turned around and cast her. She went on to be involved in several of his productions, including a groundbreaking tour of the play “El Hajj Malik” to Lagos, Nigeria.)
All these campus experiences helped shape Noble into who she is today. After graduation, rather than going straight on to graduate school, she worked for 15 years in advertising and marketing, deeply focused on the ways large corporations do business with communities of color.
Then she turned to academia, going on to get a master’s degree and doctorate in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She spent several years teaching at UCLA, and she recently moved to USC, where she is an assistant professor.
Noble still keeps a hand in the business world. She is a partner in Stratelligence, a firm that specializes in research on information and data science challenges.
She realizes that she has very good timing, academically. As an information studies scholar, she happened to be in the right field at the right time.
“I wrote this book with the hope that it could be picked up by people who are in industry and education to be more mindful about possibilities and interventions,” she says.
While Google and other search engines are notoriously tight-lipped about their algorithms, they’re also receptive to criticism, if indirectly.
“While there’s no formal relationship, conversation or partnership with researchers, that doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of criticism that come to them from scholars,” she says.
How does she know that?
“Google reads my papers,” she says. “Using IP addresses, I can see hundreds of downloads to Mountain View.”
Safiya Noble at Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library, reception at 6 p.m., lecture at 6:30 p.m., Friday, April 20. Free. RSVP at http://www.fresnostate.edu/libraryrsvp (enter code LIBNEWS)
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