Genel Ambrose, the Founder of the Good Mirrors Institute, recently pointed us to a pathbreaking book, which many readers have probably already discovered, since it was published in 2018: “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism” by Safiya Umoja Noble (NYU Press).
In the last 30 years, searching the internet has become a normal quotidian activity for the 65.6 percent of the world's population that has internet access. Google, the most visited website in the world, processes more than 8.5 billion searches a day. Approximately 50% of Americans use voice searches on the internet (Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant).
Internet search is, in vitally important ways, a primary way in which many people on earth understand the world they live in. We may be a bit skeptical of or frustrated by what we find through our searches, but ultimately, we find what we are looking for simply, it seems, because that is what is there to be found.
However, virtual spaces, like all public spaces, manifest and perpetuate the complexities and pathologies of societies at large. As Safiya Umoja Noble reminds us in this book, search results often distort the experiences of large groups of people. For example, the Good Mirrors Institute discovered that when asked “tell me about Black women” search engines (Google) and voice assistants (Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant) defer to Wikipedia which provides an incomplete and disturbing depiction. An excerpt: “black slaves, many of whom were women, were often abused by their owners and other white people this abuse extended beyond the physical and psychological abuse directly related to how slaves were treated, and included the exploitation of black women slaves in order to advance different scientific practices and techniques.” A similar example is Noble’s now well-known example of searching for “black girls”, a decade ago, which elicited a combination of pornographic images, stereotypes, and degrading results.
While the discoverability of more inspiring, more realistic, and more humanistic stories about Black women and other underpresented groups on the internet has improved, the problem is still there. One viable approach to continuing to address this problem is to significantly increase relevant content and optimize its findability. For example, Good Mirror’s Truth Portal, seeks to present stories told by and about Black women. Another example is Amnesty International’s BRAVE:Edit project which, in collaboration with Wikimedia, has promoted biographies of women human rights defenders who have devoted their lives to fighting injustice and yet are absent from the online archive. Similarly, the NY Times has launched its “Overlooked” program, a “history project recalling the lives of those who, for whatever reason, were left out of The Times’s obit pages”. At Memria, Ambrose’s work and Noble’s scholarship, as well as these other examples, have changed our perspective about internet search and SEO. We are now partnering with the experts at Thoughtlight, a Boston-based agency, to better understand how we can help diversify virtual space through storysharing.