Safiya Noble speaks out about ‘algorithmic oppression,’ racist tech

Noble, the director of UCLA's Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, googled "Black girls," and pornography turned up first in her search.

UCLA professor-scholar-author Safiya Noble is speaking out against how algorithms used in big tech are embedded with racism and sexism.

There has been a major reckoning over the role social media companies play in the output of their content, which is increasingly becoming more divisive. Noble, the director of UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, claims it’s intentional.

“The world is becoming more unequal,” Noble told Vogue in a recent interview, “and these technologies are implicated in that.”

Safiya Noble
Noted UCLA professor-scholar-author Safiya Noble is speaking out against how algorithms used in big tech are embedded with racism and sexism. (Photo: MacArthur Foundation)

Noble shared with the magazine the horror she felt after she typed “Black girls” into Google back in 2011, searching for activists her daughter and nieces could look up to. Instead, Black pornography was the first search result. She wrote of being overwhelmed by the incident in her 2018 book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.

According to Noble, these algorithms that had the N-word and the White House being linked by Google during President Barack Obama’s presidency, were being created by “the computing industry [that] came to be dominated and controlled by white men,” and she contended “they reconsolidated and reinscribed their power.”

“People who have very little to lose and everything to gain in terms of profits are the people who are so cavalier with the rest of our lives,” Noble said.

She pushed back against colleagues who claimed that algorithms could not be racist. She began to accept invitations to discuss the issue as “Algorithms of Oppression” talks.

“To make an idea exist in the world, you have to speak to it,” Noble said. “You have to be relentless and focused on what I really believed was true and still do to this day: These algorithms are touching our lives in so many different ways and will determine what’s possible. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Facebook was recently called out by one of its former employees for what she believed was its predatory behavior, theGrio previously reported. Frances Haugen appeared before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection earlier this month and testified that the social media giant ignored the harmful impact its content had, especially on children.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer,” said Haugen in a written statement, “but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Noble appreciated Haugen coming forward as a whistleblower when many previously thought it would not matter.

“There’s often decades of struggle and organizing and educating,” Noble told Vogue, “and then there is a tipping point where it becomes understood in the mainstream.”

She said she felt this was a moment for people to seize to shape the paradigm that social media organizations have, comparing it to abolitionist tipping points.

“All the discourses were the same: We can’t do away with the institution of slavery because the whole American economy is reliant upon it,” she argued. “Doesn’t that sound like a familiar argument?”

Noble is currently working with the Archewell Foundation, which was founded by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex cited Noble’s work and have been vocal about the need for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google to better police its content. The couple have been the victim of online abuse.

Noble insisted that the way to move forward also involved people themselves.

“We think we live in a culture that’s waiting for a messiah,” she said. But, “we really are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”

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