Google’s Algorithm: History of Racism Against Black Women | Time

Interesting and convincing study of embedded bias in algorithms by Safiya Umoja, author of  Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism:

…Although I focus mainly on the example of black girls to talk about search bias and stereotyping, black girls are not the only girls and women marginalized in search. The results retrieved two years into this study, in 2013, representing Asian girls, Asian Indian girls, Latina girls, white girls, and so forth reveal the ways in which girls’ identities are commercialized, sexualized or made curiosities within the gaze of the search engine. Women and girls do not fare well in Google Search — that is evident.

Of course, these problems extend to non-gendered racism, as well. On June 6, 2016, Kabir Ali, an African American teenager from Clover High School in Midlothian, Va., tweeting under the handle @iBeKabir, posted a video to Twitter of his Google Images search on the keywords “three black teenagers.” The results that Google offered were of African American teenagers’ mug shots, insinuating that the image of Black teens is that of criminality. Next, he changed one word — “black” to “white” — with very different results. “Three white teenagers” were represented as wholesome and all-American. The video went viral within 48 hours, and Jessica Guynn, from USA Today, contacted me about the story. In typical fashion, Google reported these search results as an anomaly, beyond its control, to which I responded, “If Google isn’t responsible for its algorithm, then who is?” One of Ali’s Twitter followers later posted a tweak to the algorithm made by Google on a search for “three white teens” that now included a newly introduced “criminal” image of a white teen and more “wholesome” images of black teens.

What we know about Google’s responses to racial stereotyping in its products is that it typically denies responsibility or intent to harm, but then it is able to “tweak” or “fix” these aberrations or “glitches” in its systems.

What we need to ask is why and how we get these stereotypes in the first place and what the attendant consequences of racial and gender stereotyping do in terms of public harm for people who are the targets of such misrepresentation. Images of white Americans are persistently held up in Google’s images and in its results to reinforce the superiority and mainstream acceptability of whiteness as the default “good” to which all others are made invisible. There are many examples of this, where users of Google Search have reported online their shock or dismay at the kinds of representations that consistently occur. Meanwhile, when users search beyond racial identities and occupations to engage concepts such as “professional hairstyles,” they have been met with the kinds of images seen below. The “unprofessional hairstyles for work” image search, like the one for “three black teenagers,” went viral in 2016, with multiple media outlets covering the story, again raising the question, can algorithms be racist?

Where are black girls now?

Since I began the pilot study in 2010 and collected data through 2016, some things have changed. In 2012, I wrote an article for Bitch Magazine, which covers popular culture from a feminist perspective, after some convincing from my students that this topic is important to all people — not just black women and girls. I argued that we all want access to credible information that does not foster racist or sexist views of one another. I cannot say that the article had any influence on Google in any definitive way, but I have continued to search for black girls on a regular basis, at least once a month, and I can report that Google had changed its algorithm to some degree about five months after that article was published. After years of featuring pornography as the primary representation of black girls, Google made modifications to its algorithm, and the results as of the conclusion of this research can be seen here:

No doubt, as I speak around the world on this subject, audiences are often furiously doing searches from their smart phones, trying to reconcile these issues with the momentary results. Some days they are horrified, and other times, they are less concerned, because some popular and positive issue or organization has broken through the clutter and moved to a top position on the first page. Indeed, as my book was going into production, news exploded of biased information about the U.S. presidential election flourishing through Google and Facebook, which had significant consequences in the political arena.

I encourage us all to take notice and to reconsider the affordances and the consequences of our hyper-reliance on these technologies as they shift and take on more import over time. What we need now, more than ever, is public policy that advocates protections from the effects of unregulated and unethical artificial

via Google’s Algorithm: History of Racism Against Black Women | Time

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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