REVIEW: Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Safiya Umoja Noble

Monday, 19 March 2018

A revealing look at how negative biases against women of color are embedded in search engine results and algorithms. Run a Google search for "black girls"--what will you find? "Big Booty" and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in "white girls," the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about "why black women are so sassy" or "why black women are so angry" presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society. In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color. Through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, Noble exposes a culture of racism and sexism in the way discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow in importance- - operating as a source for email, a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning, and beyond - understanding and reversing these disquieting trends and discriminatory practices is of utmost importance.

When it comes to Algorithms of Oppression, I am forced to sit on the fence. Because, even though I found the insights that the book offered to be unique, thought-provoking and completely relevant to our new lives in the online sphere, the writing was just not there for me - it was repetitive, tedious and dry, even despite the fascinating topic that the study was focussed on. This was a huge barrier for me, because I wanted (by god, I wanted) to soak up as much as I could on a topic that absolutely captives me, but the speed at which I could read the study - and keep my focus from wandering- was hindered by the writing.
But besides all of that, in Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble examines the racial and sexual bias against black women and girls by online search engines, dissecting the dominant lens in which these algorithms expect internet-surfers to look at them through: a white, heterosexual male one. Honestly I had never even thought that much about Google, despite it being such a huge part of online life, but Nobel’s findings make me want to pay closer attention to it, and its search results, in the future.
Google, after-all, has consistently signposted to sites that include ‘fake news’; revenge porn; racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic views; white supremacy; and porn sites that focus on the fetishisation of minorities. Nobel covers all of these forms of oppression in her study, showing that the only group of people who are really gaining anything from search engines are straight, white men.
Shocking, right?
The speed at which society changes seems to have grown exponentially since the birth of the internet, so who knows how relevant this study will be in relation to internet culture, in a few years time. I mean, who knows, right? With the election of Trump as President, maybe it will be even more relevant.
But, right now at least, Nobel presents an accurate and disturbing picture of a website that forms one of the foundation-blocks of online culture, and I urge everyone to pick up this book and learn more about an intrinsically-biased part of our everyday lives.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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