Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Digital Literacy, Social Justice and Race -- Part I.

Navigate to Microsoft's Bing search page (www.bing.com), and type in the phrase "black on white crime" (be sure to include the quotes to keep the words together in that order). When I did this on August 6, 2018, I received results very similar to those received by Dylann Roof, when he typed these same key words into the search engine on his browser, prior to the evening of June 17, 2015. That evening, after sitting in prayer with members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he rose and turned his Glock 9mm pistol on them, murdering nine people.

Roof described the reasons he searched the internet:

The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words "black on White crime" into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?

From this point I researched deeper and found out what was happening in Europe. I saw that the same things were happening in England and France, and in all the other Western European countries. Again, I found myself in disbelief. As an American we are taught to accept living in the melting pot, and black and other minorities have just as much right to be here as we do, since we are all immigrants. But Europe is the homeland of White people, and in many ways the situation is even worse there. From here I found out about the Jewish problem and other issues facing our race, and I can say today that I am completely racially aware.[1]

Roof actually entered his search into Google, but after much adverse publicity the company changed its search algorithm so the results now obtained are far from those Roof saw. Roof's search first led to a website for the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), an organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group and a "modern reincarnation of the old White Citizens Councils, which were formed in the 1950s and 1960s to battle school desegregation in the South. Created in 1985 from the mailing lists of its predecessor organization, the CCC has evolved into a crudely white supremacist group."[2]

In an article on the CCC website in 2001, the group proclaims, "God is the author of racism because God is the One who divided mankind into different types. . . . Mixing the races is rebelliousness against God because the separation of the races is consistent with God's over-arching plan of redemption that the races be kept separate."[3]

CCC has attempted to affix a veneer of respectability to its overlapping agenda and overlapping membership with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once dubbed the councils the "uptown Klan," while author Hodding Carter referred to them as "a country club Klan." CCC meetings resemble Rotary Club gatherings more than klaverns gathered around a backwoods fire. When CCC's founder, Gordon Baum, died in March 2015, board member and self-avowed White nationalist Jared Taylor took over as the group's spokesperson.

My Bing search for "black on white crime" did not unearth the CCC's website, but the second result returned is from Jared Taylor's American Renaissance organization, and the first is from Alex Jones's Infowars site. Jones's claim to infamy lies in his attack on the families of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. He proposed via his internet podcast that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged by the "deep state," that no one died there, and that grieving parents are simply acting. He's since been successfully sued by many of those grieving parents.

Neither the Council of Concerned Citizens nor Jared Taylor nor Alex Jones qualify in any rational universe as valid sources of information about race relations, yet they are ranked high on the list of internet search results.

"The top two positions in the search results matter the most," says psychologist Robert Epstein, who has studied how people interact with internet search engines. "The top two draw 50 percent of clicks, and the numbers go down from there, so what's at the top is extremely, extremely powerful."[4]

Most people believe a common fallacy: the higher a search result is ranked, the more valid and trustworthy the source. Altering a website's search ranking manipulates an internet user's perception of the truth. In fact, this process has been given a name: SEME, short for search engine manipulation effect. As several large-scale studies throughout the world have shown, SEME can produce dramatic swings in opinions and behavior, including how people vote.[5]

A causal arc between internet search results and murder should not be drawn. Still, in Roof's manifesto, one senses a young man's search for some truths about race using a technology common to us all. I'm left to wonder what would have happened had Dylann Roof's search pointed him to an FBI website with actual crime statistics by race, or to the Southern Poverty Law Center's résumé on the CCC, or to any number of other sites that had debunked the notion of the prevalence of black-on-white crime and hoaxes such as Sandy Hook executed by the "deep state."

Internet search, as the case of Dylann Roof so tragically shows, is no place to begin a discourse on race relations, yet it is precisely the first place where many turn today. Google distanced itself from any such connection to hate sites: "The views expressed by hate sites are not in any way endorsed by Google, but search is a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware, and violations of our webmaster guidelines, including spam and deception."[6]

The problem, however, is not what content to remove but how content initially finds its way into search results. Search results do not simply materialize from somewhere deep in cyberspace as magical answers to keywords entered by a user. All search results, and their order of appearance, are manipulated. Search engine companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo manipulate search results through algorithms that scour trillions of internet pages and rank them according to predetermined criteria. What you see is what search providers want you to see. Google, for example, accepts advertising and has a financial incentive to show certain results higher than others. The company charges advertisers on a cost-per-click basis—the higher the click count, the more the advertiser pays, the higher the revenue for Google.

Algorithmic manipulation is the business model of most search providers. But algorithms are actually coded by individuals who, consciously or unconsciously, embed their own personal biases into the computer code they write, with often devastating consequences for progress in race relations. In 2014, prior to the publication of her book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, University of California professor Safiya Umoja Noble went online to search for information about young Black women to share with her stepdaughter and niece. She entered the phrase "black girls" into Google, and from the trillions of pages indexed she received first-page results that featured "Black Booty on the Beach," "Sugary Black Pussy," and other pornographic references to Black women.[7]

In June 2016, Kabir Alli, a Black teenager from the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, videotaped his comparison of Google Image searches for "three black teenagers" and "three white teenagers." The image search for Black teens revealed a series of mug shots, while that for White teens showed wholesome, all-American youth.[8] Google, once again, issued a statement denying any responsibility for the content it displayed, and once again, shortly after this revelation, the search results were tweaked so the disparity disappeared from the first page of search results.

In May 2015, users entering the term "nigga house" (or its variations) into Google Maps were directed to the location of the White House. Google apologized for and corrected the error, which occurred because third-party users could easily access the Google Maps platform and subvert it for their own purposes.[9] This, then, brings to light another failing of using the internet as the basis for public access to information and public discourse about critical social issues: internet search engines are relatively porous and fairly easily manipulated by outside actors.

Search engine providers can suppress or elevate content. Sites such as American Renaissance and InfoWars can also manipulate their own page ranking through search engine optimization (SEO). Google bombing, Google washing, content reoptimization, linkable asset development, redirection management, accelerated mobile pages, and content personalization are just some of many SEO strategies that can trick a search engine's algorithm into ranking a site higher, thereby making a user believe more strongly in the information the site contains. Political parties can create websites with fake news on their opponents, and then through SEO they can cause those pages to rank high in search results.

The question then is how do those of us deeply concerned about social justice fight back. I'll address that question in part II of this blog post.

This blog is excerpted, in large part, from my forthcoming book, THINK BLACK: A memoir. (NY: HarperCollins, September 17, 2019). Visit the book's website at www.thinkblackthebook.com.

[1] Dylann Roof, "Dylann Roof's Manifesto," New York Times, December 13, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/13/universal/document-Dylann-Roof-manifesto.html?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=AC22CEB6963929845580949F9F9F7A6C&gwt=pay .

[2] "Council of Conservative Citizens," Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/council-conservative-citizens.

[3] "Council of Conservative Citizens," Southern Poverty Law Center.

[4] Rebecca Hersher, "What Happened When Dylann Roof Asked Google for Information about Race?" The Two-Way, National Public Radio, January 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/10/508363607/what-happened-when-dylann-roof-asked-google-for-information-about-race.

[5] Robert Epstein, "The Unprecedented Power of Digital Platforms to Control Opinions and Votes," Pro-Market (blog), Univ. of Chicago Stigler Center, April 12, 2018, https://promarket.org/unprecedented-power-digital-platforms-control-opinions-votes.

[6] Hersher, "What Happened When Dylann Roof…"

[7] Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2018), 5, 64.

[8] Ben Guarino, "Google Faulted for Racial Bias in Image Search Results for Black Teenagers," Washington Post, June 10, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/06/10/google-faulted-for-racial-bias-in-image-search-results-for-black-teenagers/?utm_term=.5990cbcd27fb . The videos and images returned for my search for "black on white crime" showed a similar negative portrayal of Blacks.

[9] Matthew Speiser, "Google Maps Searches Are Turning Up Some Wildly Racist and Creepy Results," Business Insider, May 20, 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/google-maps-searches-yielding-racist-and-creepy-results-2015-5.
Digital Literacy, Social Justice, and Race -- Part...
Let’s Talk About Race – Part II


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Sunday, 16 June 2024