Education Technology

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism


Research I’m sharing is the result of several years of research. Oddly enough, nobody really seemed to care about this research until the 2016 election 🙂 Platforms are often engaged in forms of redlining, foreclosing ways people can learn about others. Artificial Intelligence are going to move to the fore in our national dialogue about our rights, and are something we should consider as we move forward.

Google search autosuggestions featured a range of sexist ideas. These ideas reflect not just what is popular or only what Google search users are doing/thinking, which include:

  • Women cannot: drive, be bishops, be trusted, speak in church
  • Women shouldn’t: have rights, vote, work, box
  • Women should: stay at home, be slaves, be in the kitchen, not speak in church.
  • Women need to: be put in their places, know their place, be controlled, be disciplined


Washington Post article highlighted a Google Maps search for “nigga house” that took users to the White House. Response from Google was “Some inappropriate results are surfacing in Google Maps that should not be…” which is well, not exactly wonderful.

Kabir Ali highlighted a search for “three black teenagers” (mug shots) vs. “three white teenagers” (Getty-style stock photos).

Google “unprofessional hairstyles for work” (exclusively black women) versus “professional hairstyles for work” (exclusively white women).

“Algorithms represent a particular knowledge logic built on specific presumptions about what knowledge is and how one should identify its most relevant components That we are now turning to algorithms to identify what we need to know is as momentous as having relied on credentialed experts, the scientific method, common sense, or the Word of God. (T. Gillespie, The Relevance of Algorithms in Media Technologies)

Theoretical & Methodological Frameworks

  • Social Construction of Tech: tech is a social construction, embedded with social and political values
  • Black Feminism & Critical Race Theory: power relations are expressed through a “matrix of domination” based on our historical, social and economic positions. It is actionable, anti-racist research
  • Critical Information Studies: interdisciplinary interrogations of info and power.
  • Critical Discourse Analysis: power relations are expressed through a “matrix of domination” based on our historical, social and economic positions.

Why Pick on Google?

It’s far and away the search engine of choice. (Pew study). Most adult search engine users have faith in the fairness and accuracy of their results; trust in public goods. Google is in fact reliable for certain things, like how do I get from point A to point B, where is the closest Starbucks, what is the phone # for such and such a business, etc. However, for other things, that’s not necessarily so.

“Leading search engines give prominence to popular, wealthy, and powerful sites – via the technical mechanisms of crawling, indexing, and ranking algorithms, as well as thorough human-mediated trading of prominence for a fee at the expense of others.” (Nissenbaum, H., & Introna, L. 2000, Shaping the web: Why the politics of search engines matters)

Regulation of tech companies is sorely needed; there are many monopolies in the market.

For example: a search for “black girls” returns pornography as the first set of results by default. Same thing applies for Asian and Latina girls.

Old Media vs. New Media: the dominant narrative of black women and girls is sexualized.

Media representations of people of color, particularly African Americans, have been implicated in historical and contemporary racial projects. Such projects use stereotypic images to influence the redistribution of resources in ways that benefit dominant groups at the expense of others. (Davis, J.L. & Gandy, O.H. 1999. Racial identity and media orientation: exploring the nature of constraint. Journal of Black Studies).

Searching For Meaning

The Case of Dylan “Storm” Roof (see reference to the “Dylan Roof Manifesto,” 2015 at Dylan’s Google search did not return FBI statistics, but instead the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Things We Can Do

  • Reject “neutrality” and “information brokering”
  • Implement critical digital media literacy
  • Curate the indexable web too
  • Resist colorblind/racist/sexist collection development
  • Reduce technology over-development and e-waste

By Paul Schantz

CSUN Director of Web & Technology Services, Student Affairs. husband, father, gamer, part time aviator, fitness enthusiast, Apple fan, and iguana wrangler.

%d bloggers like this: