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Dr. Safiya Noble

UCLA Associate Professor and Author

by / March 26, 2019

|  Safiya Noble’s profile

People trust Internet search engine results more than they trust traditional media. But should they?

“A commercial search engine is really an advertising platform,” said UCLA Associate Professor Safiya Noble in an interview with Government Technology last year. At the time, Noble was about to publish Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. “People who are willing to pay the most are able to control certain keywords and ideas,” she said.

Noble backs this up with extensive research that followed 15 years working in the technology sector. While there are many examples of undesirable consequences of how Americans get their information today, Noble points to one that’s particularly startling: Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine African-Americans in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Roof’s curiosity about the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 led him to an Internet search on the term “black on white crime.” The information he got back was from white supremacist groups he credits with developing his racial identity.

What Roof should’ve gotten, Noble argues, is vetted, truthful information with actual FBI crime statistics. It would also help if the search returned some context around the use of the phrase “black on white crime” to help perpetuate radical, racist ideologies.

She offers an alternative to the current search engine-based information architecture that better serves the needs of the public. Experts in academia and library science, for example, should be contributing to a conversation about how to meet the country’s information needs. It would be a dramatic shift to the status quo — and it would require resources.

“Just like we invest in our infrastructure of highways and roads and bridges, we need to deeply invest in our information infrastructure that also is a benefit to the democracy,” she said. Seems like a smart investment.

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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