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Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

by Safiya Noble New York University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 256 pages
AU$59.99 NZ$63.47
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As seen in Wired and Time 
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.
An original, surprising and, at times, disturbing account of bias on the internet, Algorithms of Oppression contributes to our understanding of how racism is created, maintained, and disseminated in the 21st century.
Safiya Noble discusses search engine bias in an interview with USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
"Noble makes a strong case that present technologies and search engines are not just imperfect, but they enact actual harm to people and communities."

"Noble’s thesis is a new tune in the ever-louder chorus that, in light of the dominance of the big tech companies, is singing for 'protections and attention that work in service of the public'."-The Financial Times

"Noble argues...that the web is ...a machine of oppression...[Her] central insight - that nothing about internet search and retrieval is political neutral - is made...through the accumulation of alarming and disturbing examples.  [She] makes a compelling case that pervasive racism online inflames racist violence IRL."-Los Angeles Review of Books

"Safiya Noble’s compelling and accessible book is an impressive survey of the impact of search and other algorithms on our understandings of racial and gender identity. Her study raises crucial questions regarding the power and control of algorithms, and is essential reading for understanding the way media works in the contemporary moment."-Sarah Banet-Weiser,Author of Authenticâ„¢: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture

"A distressing account of algorithms run amok."-Kirkus Reviews

"In Algorithms of Oppression, [Noble] offers her readers a lens to discover, analyze, and critique the search engine algorithms that perpetuate stereotypes and racist beliefs…[This] book will be of great interest to academic librarians who teach information literacy courses, as well as students and faculty in computer science, ethnic studies, gender studies, and mass communications."-Choice

"All search results are not created equal.  Through deft analyses of software, society, and superiority, Noble exposes both the motivations and mathematics that make a ‘technologically redlined’ internet.  Read this book to understand how supposedly race neutral zeros and ones simply don’t add up."-Matthew W. Hughey,Author of White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race

“[P]resents convincing evidence of the need for closer scrutiny and regulation of search engine[s]….A thought-provoking, well-researched work….”-Library Journal

"Safiya Noble has produced an outstanding book that raises clear alarms about the ways Google quietly shapes our lives, minds, and attitudes. Noble writes with urgency and clarity. This book is essential for anyone hoping to understand our current information ecosystem."-Siva Vaidhyanathan,Author of The Googlization of Everything - and Why We Should Worry

“Noble’s incisive work centers around the fact that, at present, Google’s search engine promotes structural inequality through multiple examples and that this is not just a ‘design problem’ but an inherent political problem that has shaped the entirety of twentieth-century technology design. In addition to her illustrative examples and incisive criticism, Noble offers practicable policy solutions."-Metascience

"Noble demolishes the popular assumption that Google is a values-free tool with no agenda...She astutely questions the wisdom of turning so much of our data and intellectual capital over to a corporate monopoly….Noble’s study should prompt some soul-searching about our reliance on commercial search engines and about digital social equity."-STARRED Booklist

"Algorithms of Oppression is a wakeup call to bring awareness to the biases of the internet, and should motivate all concerned people to ask why those biases exist, and who they benefit."-New York Journal of Books

"Rather than being a neutral arbiter that sorts content by quality, Noble argues that search engines are easily gamed in ways that reflect discriminatory practices. Even without malevolent actors, search engines may be perpetuating racist stereotypes."-Chicago Tribune

"Noble offers a compelling look into the structure of digitized information—most of it driven by advertising revenue—and how it perpetuates racist assumptions and ideologies."-Pacific Standard

50 Best Book of 2018 So Far, "There's been a growing swell of concern in the academic community about the stranglehold that commercial (for-profit) search engines have over access to information in our world. Safiya Umoja Noble builds on this body of demonstrate that search engines, and in particular Google, are not simply imperfect machines, but systems designed by humans in ways that replicate the power structures of the western countries where they are built, complete with all the sexism and racism that are built into those structures."
Safiya Umoja Noble is Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She also holds appointments in the Departments of African American Studies, Gender Studies, and Education. Noble is the co-editor of two books, The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Culture and Class Online and Emotions, Technology & Design.