Google search algorithms are not impartial. They can be biased, just like their designers. Safiya Noble points out that search engines are not magically impartial arbiters; search engines are created by people and reflect the racist and sexist biases of their designers. Search patterns matter because search engines like Google are becoming increasingly powerful disseminators of public information.
These search patterns can catalyze really big events, some of them being drastically negative. For example, Noble pointed out that reports on Dylann Roof’s manifesto reported that he was radicalized by a Google search. Roof, a white supremacist who murdered nine black people in a Charleston church, wrote in 2012 that he “typed the words ‘black on white crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since.” This search still leads to racist hate sites, which only fuel people like Roof to commit atrocious acts.
So what have search engines like Google been doing to fix their ‘racist algorithms’?
After an incident in 2015 where Google Photos labeled a black person and his friends under the search for “gorilla,” the company put a blanket ban on such terms like “gorilla,” “chimp,” and “monkey.” Other than that, the company has done little to fix its technology and the biases associated with it. Even though the company has fixed a few troubling quirks of its autocomplete feature, there are still several flaws. In December 2016, the company fixed the autocomplete “are jews evil” but the Google search still unearths a range of awful autocomplete suggestions for queries related to gender, race, religion, and Adolf Hitler.
Google’s VP of news, Richard Gingras, has been cited saying, “As much as I would like to believe our algorithms will be perfect, I don’t believe they ever will be.” I think that at this point, it is unrealistic for us to expect Google’s algorithms to be completely rid of racist and sexist biases. In a perfect world, yes, that would be true; but we aren’t there yet. I think it’s great that people like Noble are bringing this issue to our attention, and hopefully, search engine companies will be pushed to solve these issues.