Google, Racism, and Media Bias

Try this experiment at home:

Do an image search using the phrase “Three black teenagers” you are likely to get these result

Three black teenagers google search

Now do an image search with the phrase “Three white teenagers” and you are likely to get these results:

Three white teenagers google search

I’m sure you are seeing some pretty blatant and pretty racist differences. These differences aren’t unique to my computer or searching habits either.  This is actually a reflection of the personal biases of thousands of web publishers.

Try searching images for “unprofessional hairstyles for interviews” and then “professional hairstyles for interviews” and see what pops up. Did it look something like this:

google_profhair2 google_profhair









Notice anything?

I do, we live in a super racists society. One where black women’s natural hair is considered unprofessional and three black teenagers are only talked about in the context of criminal activity.

In order to really understand what I’m talking about though, you need to understand Google algorithms, web searching, and page ranks.

According to the Internet research firm Netcraft, there are nearly 150,000,000 active Web sites on the Internet today [source: Netcraft].

Search engines like Google work to sift through those sites and “serve” you with the most relevant information you are looking for in relation to your search. To do this effectively and efficiently search engines use complex algorithms – which, simply put, are a series of mathematical instructions that “teach” the search engine how to find what you are looking for.

Web publishes use search engine optimization in order create appropriate keywords, terms, and phrases to meet search engine page ranking requirements. Digital marketing agencies and content marketers spend a lot of time and money researching high-ranking words, terms, and phrases consumers might use in order to get their content in front of an audience.

This is how Google’s PageRanking system works:

  • PageRank assigns a rank or score to every search result. The higher the page’s score, the further up the search results list it will appear

  • Scores are partially determined by the number of other Web pages that link to the target page. Each link is counted as a vote for the target. The logic behind this is that pages with high quality content will be linked to more often than mediocre pages.

  • Not all votes are equal. Votes from a high-ranking Web page count more than votes from low-ranking sites. You can’t really boost one Web page’s rank by making a bunch of empty Web sites linking back to the target page.

  • The more links a Web page sends out, the more diluted its voting power becomes. In other words, if a high-ranking page links to hundreds of other pages, each individual vote won’t count as much as it would if the page only linked to a few sites.

  • Other factors that might affect scoring include the how long the site has been around, the strength of the domain name, how and where the keywords appear on the site and the age of the links going to and from the site. Google tends to place more value on sites that have been around for a while. [Source: How Stuff Works]

What this means is, search results are a combination of the content web publishers produce and publish and the algorithms search engines use to find that content. How often people and other websites interact with that content determine the importance Google and other search engines ascribe to it.

We already know media, whether digital or mainstream, exhibits extreme bias. Both in the stories they choose to tell and in the way they tell them. I have spoken about media manipulation here before. This means that search engine results will reflect that manipulation and bias. When we talk about Google being racists what we really need to do is place the accountability squarely on the web publishers creating the biased content being served to you when you search something like “professional hairstyles for interviews.”

The typical news outlets (online or on TV) often depict people of color via negative images of black men in handcuffs and Latinos invading our borders. Time and again we see white women being praised for hairstyles and looks that black women are usually hated for. This bias plays out time and again in movies, books, television, and yes search engine results.

To be honest the easiest way to see racism in America is to do a series of searches similar to the ones I displayed above. In doing so we can see systemic and personal racism being played out in real-time over and over again. The best thing we can do about it is unpack our own personal biases and call out the bias being played out in the digital media you are consuming, immediately and frequently. Consider it a personal mission to diversify your search results.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s