Search Influence and Racial Bias

Media Influence Cartoon by Don Addis

As we all know, the media dominates what whirls around in our brains. We consume so much information that we are ultimately subconsciously thinking thoughts that we may not have had unless the idea was subtly shoved into our heads. Sometimes, those ideas that were snuck into our minds can have a negative affect in society. Today I watched Safiya Noble, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book Algorithms of Oppression, bring up this topic in her presentation about minorities within search algorithms. Midway through the video, she brought up a topic I wasn’t expecting to see again: the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

As a Central Florida native and someone who went to high school in the same town the incident occurred, the topic really hit home with me. Though I didn’t know him personally, we were the same age at the time and the fact that someone so young was shot for looking suspicious was infuriating to me. The story – featured nationwide for a time – was played daily on the local news for over a year. It was constantly presented as a black versus white scandal. But in reality, that wasn’t the case.

Yes, Trayvon Martin was black. That’s pretty clear from the photos of when he was happy and living. But no, George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s shooter, isn’t just white: he’s half white and half Peruvian! (And as we are all painfully aware, minorities suffer greatly from negative bias all the time in this country. So how could he not relate?) He has obvious Hispanic facial features when you look at him! I honestly have no idea how anyone was convinced that he was fully white! Yet the media inflated his white half to make it seem like it was just a diligent white guy protecting himself from a dangerous black teenager. In reality, it was a half-hispanic-half-white adult man shooting a 17-year-old boy because he assumed the kid was up to no good just for being black!

And in conjunction with the bias featured on television, Safiya Noble brought up the bias featured on the web:


See the top results? Because the media framed the issue as a black versus white problem, people automatically assumed that it was Trayvon’s fault for getting shot. Black people are subject to these assumptions just because of their color – unlike white people who are almost always viewed to be innocent unless proven guilty. And people who honestly were just looking up quick information about the individuals would be subject to viewing the drop downs, putting these ideas into their heads, possibly adding more members to the bias-club. How unfair is that? Extremely.

In the end, the jury found George Zimmerman, not guilty. And I truly think the media influenced them along with everybody else who was certain of his innocence. The addition of Google’s search recommendations definitely did not help Trayvon’s case. Racial bias is very real. Search engines need to fix this. Stop adding to the negative influences by removing rude racist phrases from the drop down options! It could be the difference between verdicts in daily life and in court!


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