Safiya Noble believes that prominent commercial internet search engines reinforce racism and sexism—and that there are major implications for K-12 educators and students.
“The main thing I want teachers to understand is that they would never send their students to a catalogue of advertisements as a scholarly, legitimate resource. And yet they regularly send their students to the largest ad platform in the country, Google,” said Noble, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication.
The interview followed an event Tuesday at the New York-based think tank Data & Society, where Noble discussed her new book, “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.”
Noble undertook the research behind the book back in 2011, after a Google query for “black girls” yielded a stream of pornographic and offensive search results.
Noble says those “hits” weren’t an accidental byproduct of neutral algorithms driving Google’s search engine. Instead, she argues, they reflect the human biases inherent in the engineers who created the algorithms, structural biases rooted in the underlying classification systems and web architecture upon which commercial search engines are built, and an advertising-based business model that accepts the reality that racist and sexist representations of women and people of color are often still quite profitable.
In response to such critiques, a Google spokeswoman pointed to a number of recent efforts by the company to improve the quality of its search results. A diverse team of human evaluators reviews search results according to publicly posted guidelines, and the company has been clear about its position that advertising does not impact so-called “organic” search results.
There’s no doubt that Google and other big tech platforms have changed, often for the better, in response to public pressure, Noble said.
But, she argued, the underlying structural problems associated with the world’s information being curated by a massive for-profit company, and with minorities and marginalized groups having relatively limited power to control how they are represented, persist.
What does it all mean for K-12?
Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Why do you contend that search engines like Google reinforce racism and sexism?
I started researching the output of large commercial search engines, namely Google, to see what kind of information they provided about women and girls, particularly women and girls of color. I discovered that consistently, they were misrepresented, mostly through pornography and hypersexual content.
Was this a problem only during the period of time you studied (2011-2015), or is it ongoing?
Search results have changed for black girls over time, but the same phenomenon around misinformation about different kinds of ideas and people are still present. It’s still a problem in that Asian and Latina girls are still often hypersexualized or “pornified.”
We’re also now to a place where utter disinformation and propaganda about certain people’s identities can circulate freely.
What do you make of the changes that Google has made in recent years?
Over time, I have watched as scholars and journalists have criticized the big tech companies for the output of their systems, and I’ve seen the platforms slowly shift and modify their results. But new problems always come online.
So while individual results might shift over time, structurally the same kinds of problems exist, where people who are in smaller minority groups often don’t have the ability to control the kind of information that circulates about them.
Are students and teachers too trusting of Google Search results?
I’ve done a lot of work with training teachers. And they are always stunned.
One of the first things I tell teachers is, ‘Stop telling students to just Google something.’” I take them through seemingly benign image searches on particular occupations. For example, when they’ve searched “university professor,” almost exclusively images of white men come back in return.
Imagine 3rd graders doing reports on careers and looking for images of people who work in white-collar occupations on an authoritative site like Google, and the images they see are primarily white men.
This works against the notion that education can create new possibilities for students to imagine themselves in any future they want.
What do you want the K-12 world to know about the mechanisms behind these problems you describe?
The main thing I want teachers to understand is that they would never send their students to a catalogue of advertisements as a scholarly, legitimate resource. And yet they regularly send their students to the largest ad platform in the country, Google.
Teachers need to understand that Google is an advertising platform. It’s not necessarily great as a replacement for the school or public library.
To what extent do you see schools right now helping students understand how these tools work?
I think we have to make the distinction between well-resourced and non-resourced public schools. Students who go to under-resourced schools are more likely to not have up-to-date textbooks. They often have less-well-trained teachers. There are often a lot of barriers to an excellent education. So many times these are the students who are hyper-reliant on Google, even though [they’re the most likely to see misrepresentations of people like them.]
Do you believe a platform like Google Search should explicitly promote a social-justice agenda?
I think we need non-commercial search engines. Rather than asking Silicon Valley companies to change their business models, why don’t we invest in public interest search tools that are curated by teachers, librarians, and subject-matter experts?
I think the idea of a public-interest search engine is no more controversial than the Library of Congress.
But what people have now is Google. Should companies like that be the arbiters of the online content users see?
The misnomer is that people think that search engines are neutral or benign tools currently.
The unfortunate part is that Google is often responding after the fact to problems that come up, in response to people like me and the Southern Poverty Law Center talking about how people like Dylann Roof [a white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans worshipping at a Charleston, S.C. church] appear to have been radicalized online through Google searches.
I don’t think they’ve sufficiently trained their workforce to head off complex issues.
What kind of training are you talking about?
I think engineering curricula has to include deep explorations into humanities and the social sciences. Current software engineers should be retrained to deal with failures of their products and the social implications of their work. I want to see software engineers who have more than a 12th grade level of humanities and social-sciences instruction.
In your book, you argue that so long as women and people of color are underrepresented in the workforces of these companies, these problems are going to continue to come up.
I think it’s fair to say there are not enough women and people of color working in Silicon Valley. But there’s a huge pipeline of qualified people who don’t get hired.
But we could hire an entire workforce of women and people of color, and if we’re still reliant on training in math and science that precludes exposure to other ways of thinking, we’ll still get the same types of results.
What’s the role of schools in changing that?
We’re at an important moment of K-12 education. These critiques of technology are not a core part of the curriculum.
K-12 educators can do a tremendous amount to help students understand that mathematical languages can be interpreted and used in different ways, just like other forms of language.
It’s also important for teachers to impress upon students how important it is to have a well-rounded education. What would it be like if we had software engineers who had bachelor’s degrees in computer science and women’s studies simultaneously? How much different would that make their work?
Photo: The Google sign at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.--Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.