There was a lot of information and many ideas covered in Safiya Umoja Noble’s Book, “Algorithms of Oppression, How search Engines Reinforce Racism”, so I’ll do my best to keep this post short while pointing out some parts that stuck out to me and my thoughts on them.
One of the first points I found worth mentioning was made my Noble stating “Not only do algorithms reinforce racism, sexism, and oppression overall, but they can spread false associations”. (I’m not sure if this is a direct quote, unfortunately I lost all my highlighted material to page 44.) This was made clear when she searches “black girls” on Google, and the first hit was a pornographic site. This quote also reminded me of a Fortune article titled “Lack of Women in Stem Could Lead to AI Sexism” where several virtual assistants are pointed out as having female names or voices, (i.e. Alexa) which “perpetuates the stereotypes about women as the chipper, helpful assistant.” It takes something as unobtrusive as a female AI voice, or as appalling as porn being the first search result for “black girls” to alter or reinforce our perception of a population.
Another point I wanted to address was in the section “Gaming the System: Optimizing and Co-optimizing Results in Search Engines” on page 47 where Noble describes “Hit and Run” activity as “activity that can deliberately co-opt terms and identities on the web for political, ideological, and satirical purposes.” This made me think of the 2016 presidential election where there was controversy raised over Facebook being many people’s primary news source and why that is problematic. These reasons were made clear in “Algorithms of Oppression” and Nick Seaver’s “Knowing Algorithms” in Part 2 where he describes Eli Pariser’s experience with algorithmic filtering on Facebook. Our knowledge of algorithms or lack thereof, can cause real damage to our understanding of all sides of a story.
Thankfully, as Noble mentions, some things have changed since her initial Google search. Pornography is not the first result to pop up, and what I found most exciting is that during my research, “Black Girls Code” is actually the first result. As the general public becomes more aware of algorithms and the impact they can have on our research, they hopefully become less likely to skew public perceptions, or at the very least, we’ll question the information we’re being fed.