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Search engines reflect society’s racial bias

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Have a question? Try searching for answers on the Internet. Type in the words “Why are Black” into your search engine, and the autocomplete function will suggest the following: “Why are Black people so loud?” or “Why are Blacks so rude?”

And it’s not just about race. Type in “Why do gay” or “Why are Christians” and more than likely, you’ll receive bigoted and racist, sexist or homophobic suggestions.

Earlier this year, Google was forced to remove content from its autocorrect search in the United Kingdom for offensive language. Controversy isn’t new to Google.

In late November 2009, the first result in a Google search for First Lady Michelle Obama was a racist photo illustration digitally altered to depict her as a monkey.

In response to the ensuing media furor, Google released a statement saying “Sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include disturbing content, even from innocuous queries. We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google.”

The company adds, “The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results. Individual citizens and public interest groups do periodically urge us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results … we apologize if you’ve had an upsetting experience using Google. We hope you understand our position regarding offensive results.”

According to the company, which employs more than 40,000 people, search results and suggestions rely heavily on computer algorithms using “thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query” including past searches done by other Google users.

Eddie Journey, resident psychotherapist at Good Point Counseling & Consulting Services LLC said the responsibility of filtering search suggestions and results lie in the hands of both the user and the hosting company.

“What (search engines) are going to say is, ‘We’re not racist, we’re not sexist, we’re not homophobic, the other people are’ but on the same token as search engine providers, they are benefiting and profiting from these particular searches,” said Journey.

Journey believes that not only do these suggestions affect the view someone has of another group, it also disrupts self-development. Journey compares the experience similar to peering through a funhouse mirror.

“It is a concept of mirroring and mirroring helps develop our sense of identity. How you get to know yourself is through what you see, what you experience and how you respond to others,” he said. “If those mirrors are distorted, then how we come to see ourselves is impacted as a distortion of who we truly are.”

A study titled “Why do white people have thin lips?: Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms” concluded “Muslims and Jewish people were linked to questions about aspects of their appearance or behavior, while white people were linked to questions about their sexual attitudes. Gay and Black identities appeared to attract higher numbers of questions that were negatively stereotyping.”

Google isn’t the only search engine to suggest offensive search topics; Bing has also been a culprit.

“If you think about it, (offensive suggestions) holds you back from functioning properly because you could be searching for something at work and come across it and now you’ve got to deal with the feelings you have about it,” said Journey.

Another study published in Critical Discourse Studies stated, “It seems as though humans may have already shaped the Internet in their image, having taught stereotypes to search engines and even trained them to hastily present these as results of ‘top relevance.’”

Journey believes that there is a false perception that if something is on the Internet, it must be true.

“In earlier years, there used to be a specific process of editing or fact checking. On the Internet there is not and as a result, the unfiltered information apart of the Internet is what is being allured,” noted Journey. “People may have the feeling of ‘I’m going to get the unadulterated truth if I go on the Internet versus if I go to someone who is in my family (to ask a question). They are going to give me a cleaned up version.’”

“Why would we think the Internet would be free of bias?” he asks. “It’s a representation of what is already going on in our daily lives and it’s just been made more public.”

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