ARGUMENT: Google’s Search Algorithms and Data Systems are Responsible for Perpetuating and Institutionalising Racism, in the Digital Domain.
The Innovation of Google
Google’s auto-completion search and information retrieval algorithms negatively reinforce existing racial prejudices and through personalised page organising systems, Google’s data strategies discriminate marginalised groups. The Internet was built to service society, by providing a tool for quickly accessing vast amounts of information, and connecting to broader communities online. However search engine giant, Google, has manifested into a company that has a clear commercial focus that powers dominant structures and oppresses the vulnerable, further dividing an already racially in just world.
Google has the capability through its software capabilities, such as the algorithm PageRank, which order’s relevant webpages according to the user’s previous searches, to select dominant narratives and minimise the reach of minority perspectives. Furthermore, a lack of human involvement in the moderation process, or the stereotypical attitudes of algorithmic engineers, proliferates racism and provides a space for exclusion of unaccepted identities.
To focus on this concept of Algorithmic bias and the embedded inequalities of search, the example of racism towards Women of colour, will be drawn upon.
“Jak pobrać wszystkie zdjęcia z Google+” by download.net.pl is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
History of Search Engines
A search engine is ‘an information retrieval system that allows for keyword searches of distributed digital text’, and through this process, the modern day internet has become interwoven into everyday functioning (Halavais, 2013, p.6). Since the first Search Engine, Archie, in 1990, the world-wide-web has expanded and developed as an infrastructure, offering a vast range of opportunities through extensive software technologies.
Before the emergence of Internet and its endless possibilities, social, political and economic divides were ever-present across the globe. Inequalities, including racial hierarchies, elite powers, suppression of minorities, and gender discrepancies continue to dominate society, and are now intertwined into the web, creating a ‘digital divide’. The innovation of internet, bought with it new tools for reinforcing socio-economic differences, whereby the ‘freedom of expression’ that search engines were meant to provide, has now become limited to ‘popular and standardised interfaces, browsers and operating systems’ that represent only a small proportion of cultures and practices (Segev, 2010, p. 15).
Google: The Search Engine Giant
It is contested that the internet is a ‘public sphere’ that negatively controls what users can see through ‘filter bubbles’, preventing ‘user’s exposure to diverse views’ (Abbate, 2017, p. 11). Google dominated the Search Engine market in the early 2000s, with the company currently providing ‘information to more than 775 million different users every month’ (Segev, 2010, p. 47). With Google having this Global reach it is clear the company has a great influence over society’s exclusionary practices and outlook on the broader context of race.
Google’s role in internet worked communications
Google, which has a ‘monopoly of knowledge’ and domination over the internet, utilises various algorithmic strategies to benefit the company itself and other global businesses, demonstrating the commodification of the web, and the reproduction of offline hierarchies into the digital society (Segev, 2010, p. 28). It is important to note that ‘information inequalities is not limited to the internet… similar inequalities exist with other information technologies such as Television, fax machines and the telephone’ (Segev, 2010, p.8).
The image below, represents Google’s market share (2019-2020), in proportion to the other leading search engines, Baidu, Bing and Yahoo.
Dave Chaffney, Sept 3 2020, ‘Search Engine Marketing Statistics’. All Rights Reserved.
When analysing the role of Google in institutionalising pre-existing discriminatory viewpoints, we must consider Google’s algorithm structure, which proliferates the problem. Firstly, Googles ‘engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects’, including in 2018, 3,200 modifications to its algorithms, with a constant focus on paid advertisers for the maintenance of a high annual profit (Grind et al, 2019). In 2010, Google introduced a new system to its platform, Google Instant, which was a ‘predictive search technology’ that worked by ‘automatically filling in potential keywords as searchers type’ and this has caused discussion around a ‘google-shaped world’ whereby auto-filling of search results reflects the ideologies held by Google engineers and does not consider the minorities (Hillis et al, 2013, p. 3).
For example, Scholar, Safiya Noble in ‘Algorithms of Oppression’ discussed how searching ‘Black Girls’ on Google did not lead to educational or information webpages but rather to pornography sites, sexualising women of colour online. Google argues that this is because these are the most frequently visited websites, however, Noble concluded that ‘data is biased and perpetuates racism’ and Google itself ‘reflects the kinds of hegemonic frameworks and notions that are often resisted by women and people of colour. (Noble, 2018, p. 24).
“Book Cover – Algorithms of Oppression” by frances bell is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
The transformative effects of Google: economic, social and political consequences
Googles Algorithms have a tremendous impact on the lives of marginalised groups, such as people of colour, and in terms of intersectionality, women of colour. Google claims that ‘these results don’t reflect Google’s own opinions or beliefs’ however, algorithms have to be created by someone, and it is the engineers, the ‘human programmers’ who ‘introduce bias through omission’ (Guarino, 2016). This ‘algorithmic bias’ is a complex situation, as search requires user impute alongside Google’s data retrieval systems, and the widespread discriminatory searches negatively contributes to the overarching problem of racism in the digital environment.
In terms of social consequences, as argued by Noble, ‘the problems of big data go deeper than misrepresentations’ , Google’s search power ‘serve a powerful role in maintaining racial and gender subjugation’ (Noble, 2018, p. 31). With ‘Black Girls’ being the subject of sexualised and racist page searches and ranking systems, social inequalities are exacerbated, and racial prejudices are transcribed into mundane behaviours (Noble, 2018, p. 32).
Figure 1.5, Safiya Noble, 2018, in ‘Algorithms of Oppression’. All Rights Reserved.
Google’s underlying economic goals, such as maintaining high paying advertisers, causes Black Racial bias to be proliferated online, and to go unnoticed in the digital context.
Minority groups, like Black females, or Indigenous communities are not equally or accurately depicted on the web, and this is due to Google’s algorithms that credit pages with higher links, often those that discuss dominant White ideals and misrepresent minority perspectives. Google ‘denies this’. ‘Google’s classification of information is hierarchal and based on commercial considerations’, and its search results are sorted to benefit the elites, monetising the digital domain, and suppressing underprivileged standpoints (Segev, 2010, p. 49). This has a lasting impact on the inclusion of different communities and cultures across the world, as the online forum is explicitly producing racist materials that destroys cross-border integration and institutionalises anti-minority views, further dividing society.
The role of Google in everyday life? Is it a positive innovation? What are the problems?
From a positive lens, Google has changed the information technology industry. The search engine has allowed for the formation of a ‘virtual community’ , with various interfaces and experiences available for users at the click of a button (Abbate, 2017, p. 10). Google’s ‘networked society’ has allowed for ‘the active role of users as content creators’, blurring the line between producer and consumer in the digital space, positively allowing activist voices to be heard, in a world shaped by dominant discourses (Abbate, 2017, p. 10).
I Use Google without even noticing, it has become embedded into my everyday activities without a conscious effort. This proves the domination it holds ,in the internet sector. Google’s innovation has changed the way we learn, providing a plethora of data and resources at our fingertips. For student’s, like myself, the quick access to information, has broadened my studying abilities. However, with this, comes the negative consequences of Google ‘organising the world’s information’ (Grind et al, 2019). With an overload of data, Google’s algorithmic strategies filter what it believes will be the most ‘useful’ to researchers, controlling what we see and read and distorting the information we absorb. Google’s censorship systems represent the commodification of the internet, and this is problematic, especially for students trying to gain a wide scope of viewpoints for educational purposes
The innovation of the world-wide-web is a powerful discourse that universalises pre-existent discriminatory beliefs and attitudes, and reinforces offline racist inequalities, in the digital landscape. Web giant, Google, utilises search algorithms and webpage organisation apparatus, further marginalising minority groups and powering authoritative elites and dominant cultures. Google’s commercial orientation and lack of corrective equality measure, produces misrepresented ideologies and identities, in which oppressed groups, like Black women, become further separated from society. Positively, Google, and its search capabilities, has enhanced the lives of ordinary citizens and global corporations, providing widespread information, that can be readily accessed online. This data, however, is not ‘equally’ available, as a lack of resources to access the internet and literature to understand the information, especially in third world nations, reinforces the global divide that has become ever-present across the online space.
Embedded Video: Scholar Safiya Noble discusses ‘Algorithms of Oppression’ and how systems of informational retrieval and search optimisation by web engines, can reinforce discrimination.
Video by Thrive Global, Safiya Noble on ‘your search engine results could be perpetuating racism’. All rights reserved.
Abbate, J. (2017). What and where is the Internet? (Re)defining Internet histories. Digital Technology, Culture and Society, 1(1-2), 8-14. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/24701475.2017.1305836
Baker, P., Potts, A. (2013). ‘Why do White people have thin lips?’ Google and the perpetuation of Stereotypes via auto-complete search forms. Critical Discourse Studies, 10(2), 187-204. Doi: 10.1080/17405904.2012.744320
Chaffey, D. (2020, Sep 03). Search Engine Marketing Statistics 2020. Smart Insights. Retrieved from smartinsights.com
Grind, K., Schechiner, S., Mcmillian, R., & West, J. (2019). How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results; The internet giant uses blacklists, algorithm tweaks and an army of contractors to shape what you see. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/2314540360/
Guarino, B. (2016, June 10). Google faulted for racial bias in image search results for black teenagers. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/06/10/google-faulted-for-racial-bias-in-image-search-results-for-black-teenagers/.
Halavais, A. (2013). The Engines. In Search Engine Society (pp. 5-31). Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.
Hillis, K., Petit, M., & Jarrett, K. (2013). Google and the Culture of Search. Taylor and Francis Group, 1-257.
Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression. New York University.
Segev, E. (2010). Google and the digital divide: the bias of online knowledge. Oxford: Chandos Pub.
Stetzer, A. (2016, July 29). Googles power of censorship: who controls the controllers of the internet?. Search Engine Watch. retrieved from searchenginewatch.com
Time (2018). Google Has a Striking History of Bias Against Black Girls. Retrieved from https://time.com/5209144/google-search-engine-algorithm-bias-racism/