Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

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A revealing look at how negative biases against women of color are embedded in search engine results and algorithms Run a Google search for “black girls”―what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls,” the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.Through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, Noble exposes a culture of racism and sexism in the way discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow in importance―operating as a source for email, a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning, and beyond―understanding and reversing these disquieting trends and discriminatory practices is of utmost importance.An original, surprising and, at times, disturbing account of bias on the internet, Algorithms of Oppression contributes to our understanding of how racism is created, maintained, and disseminated in the 21st century.

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“Safiya Noble has produced an outstanding book that raises clear alarms about the ways Google quietly shapes our lives, minds, and attitudes. Noble writes with urgency and clarity. This book is essential for anyone hoping to understand our current information ecosystem.” (Siva Vaidhyanathan,Author of The Googlization of Everything ― and Why We Should Worry)

“Noble demolishes the popular assumption that Google is a values-free tool with no agenda…She astutely questions the wisdom of turning so much of our data and intellectual capital over to a corporate monopoly.Nobles study should prompt some soul-searching about our reliance on commercial search engines and about digital social equity.” (STARRED Booklist)

“A good read for anyone interested in how bias can be expressed by lines of code. Even those already familiar with the issues will find new insight in the connections and impact Noble outlines. The book is accessible even to those who are not well-versed in the technology of search engines.” (The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion)

Algorithms of Oppression is a wakeup call to bring awareness to the biases of the internet, and should motivate all concerned people to ask why those biases exist, and who they benefit.” (New York Journal of Books)

Algorithms of Oppression succeeds as a critical intervention, one with a clear commitment to engaged scholarship that should lead to policy changes as well as changes in a field too white, American and male. For readers of this journal, the book is a powerful example of the vital contributions of Black Feminist Technology Studies… Noble demonstrates that engaged, intersectional and accessible writing can and indeed does make a difference.” (The International Journal of Press/Politics)

“[P]resents convincing evidence of the need for closer scrutiny and regulation of search engine[s].A thought-provoking, well-researched work.” (Library Journal)

“Noble makes a strong case that present technologies and search engines are not just imperfect, but they enact actual harm to people and communities.” (Popmatters.com)

“All search results are not created equal. Through deft analyses of software, society, and superiority, Noble exposes both the motivations and mathematics that make a technologically redlined internet. Read this book to understand how supposedly race neutral zeros and ones simply don’t add up.” (Matthew W. Hughey, author White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race)

“Noble offers a compelling look into the structure of digitized informationmost of it driven by advertising revenueand how it perpetuates racist assumptions and ideologies.” (Pacific Standard)

“50 Best Book of 2018 So Far, “There’s been a growing swell of concern in the academic community about the stranglehold that commercial (for-profit) search engines have over access to information in our world. Safiya Umoja Noble builds on this body of work…to demonstrate that search engines, and in particular Google, are not simply imperfect machines, but systems designed by humans in ways that replicate the power structures of the western countries where they are built, complete with all the sexism and racism that are built into those structures.” (Popmatters.com)

About the Author

Safiya Umoja Noble is is Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School of Communication. Noble is the co-editor of two books, The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Culture and Class Online and Emotions, Technology & Design.

A revealing look at how negative biases against women of color are embedded in search engine results and algorithms Run a Google search for “black girls”―what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls,” the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.Through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, Noble exposes a culture of racism and sexism in the way discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow in importance―operating as a source for email, a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning, and beyond―understanding and reversing these disquieting trends and discriminatory practices is of utmost importance.An original, surprising and, at times, disturbing account of bias on the internet, Algorithms of Oppression contributes to our understanding of how racism is created, maintained, and disseminated in the 21st century.

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