Safiya Umoja Noble’s book Algorithms of Expression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism relies on research into bias and algorithms to demonstrate how online search results replicate and reinforce sexist and racist beliefs that resonate with specific societies where search engines operate instead of being neutral. The book sheds light on the role of search engines in influencing people’s modes of relating, knowing, and understanding. The paper summarizes and analyzes the book by identifying its major arguments and responses to these arguments.
i. Book Summary
Noble uses the book to challenge the idea that popular search engines such as Google provide a level playing field for all forms of activities, identities, and ideas. According to her argument, data discrimination is real and it is enhanced by private interests focused on the promotion of certain sites and the monopoly status of some internet search engines. Due to these, there are biased sets of search algorithms aimed at promoting white privilege and discriminating against people of color; particularly women. According to Noble, search engines “oversimplify complex phenomena” (p. 118). Noble demonstrates this by analyzing textual and media searchers and researching extensively on paid online advertising. According to her, the analysis reveals that there is a culture of sexism and racism regarding the creation of discoverability online. According to her, people should understand the effect “that such results have on our ways of knowing and relating” (p. 71). She believes that the growth in importance of search engines and related companies regarding their operation as sources for email, which is commonly used on school learning, requires the reversing of the discriminatory practices and disquieting trends.
The book has six chapters with each building on the previous one or extending Noble’s thesis. In the first chapter, Noble recounts the unsettling experienced that motivated her to inquire about the issue. After searching for the phrase “Black girls,” she learned that the search results that followed were pornographic and this motivated her to investigate the reason the algorithms drove racism and sexism. She provides various examples from Google images and autosuggest that reveal how Black and White women are represented differently. According to her argument, the results demonstrate the existence of bias and corruption due to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques, advertising interests, and corresponding neo-liberal views. In the second chapter, Noble continues to hold Google responsible for perpetuating racism and discounting the idea that these online searches return what people desire. According to her, technological racialization has developed from web construction’s foundational ideologies like consumption, individualism, and militarism, which consider maleness and whiteness as norms. The third chapter focuses on a case study involving Google’s search engine and ways it corroborates dangerous narratives regarding minorities. In particular, she focuses on Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who relied on his findings to justify hatred against Black people. According to Noble, Google gave the white supremacist the information he wanted regarding Black anti-White violence.
In the fourth chapter, Noble extends her thesis by emphasizing the search engine’s oppressive control over identity. She documents various women who were porn-shamed and critiques the role of the internet in cementing digital footprints. She then contrasts how digital footprints are dealt with in the European Union and the US. According to her, people in the European Union are protected through the “right to be forgotten” laws (p. 122). In the next chapter, Noble moves beyond Google by focusing on the role played by the field of library science in embedding dominant narratives. In particular, various headings demonstrate the vantage point of whiteness, Christianity, heteronormativity, and patriarchy. In the last chapter, Noble appeals for the consideration of public policies aimed at questioning big data optimism, regulating the filtration practices of commercial search engines, and stalling Google’s information monopoly. She believes that the lack of minorities and women in technology fields has contributed to the trends. Also, she addresses the existing power relations that exist in all internet aspects, whereby users are considered commodities and surplus labor. She states, “We are the product that Google sells to advertisers” (p. 162). Therefore, Google plays an important role in understanding aspects of life today. Noble presents Kandis’ story regarding the biased searching strategies and advertising practices her business was exposed to.
Noble presents a well-evidenced argument regarding the negative impact of search engines on society. The significant intellectual and emotional stakes in the topic make the book a refreshing and dynamic read. Moreover, the fact that it has been completed by a Black woman and scholar who relates more with the race issue being discussed gives the book authenticity. Noble manages to contribute to a rich critical heritage to the book through theoretical perspectives and micro-arguments. In particular, she elaborates on various political-economic analyses regarding the role of corporate media in information control. She enforces the domination of the internet by a few elites who are interested in shaping society’s perspectives and views on certain issues. The book also follows Black feminist ideas, which allows the reader to consider different critical and theoretical leads in understanding the role of search engines in reinforcing certain views and beliefs. Notably, Noble’s book does note exists as an over theoretical and incomprehensible book, as she manages to guide the main argument through the summary of various theories. By doing this, she allows different entry points for the book’s readers, which means that it can be accessible to wider audiences.
Despite these aspects, Noble’s book has certain weaknesses that lie more in the tone and organization used. Notably, the argument that Noble presents in the book is backed up by sufficient evidence and this means that an examination of its weaknesses requires a focus on the structural setup. In particular, the book’s context, repetition, and foreshadowing provide a difficult and recursive reading experience. Additionally, the book touches on numerous subjects within the chapters, which make it challenging for some readers to focus on specific items, as some of these chapters turn unwieldy. Notably, chapter one discusses different issues, which makes it flesh out the methodological and theoretical approaches, Google’s information monopoly, the search operation, and the context, which appear overwhelming and fragmented. The chapter contains much content, some of which is repeated in the next chapter. Also, Noble uses a polemic tone that might appear to alienate technophilic and more conservative readers who may be her ideal audience. Notably, these weaknesses are minor complaints that do not cloud the message portrayed by the book.
In conclusion, Noble’s book Algorithms of Expression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism explores the role that search engines play in influencing society, specifically, the replication and reinforcement of sexist and racist beliefs that resonate with where search engines operate. The book sheds light on the role of search engines in influencing people’s modes of relating, knowing, and understanding. She uses the book to challenge the idea that popular search engines such as Google provide a level playing field for all forms of activities, identities, and ideas. According to her argument, data discrimination is real and it is enhanced by private interests focused on the promotion of certain sites and the monopoly status of some internet search engines. Due to these, there are biased sets of search algorithms aimed at promoting white privilege and discriminating against people of color; particularly women. While the book has certain weaknesses regarding its tone and organization, it puts forward strong arguments regarding the role of search engines in promoting sexist and racist beliefs.
Noble, Safiya U. Algorithms of Expression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York University Press, 2018.