UCLA’s newest MacArthur Genius says search engines reinforce oppressive stereotypes

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Dr. Safiya Noble is an associate professor of gender studies and African American studies at UCLA and a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

When the MacArthur Foundation called Safiya Noble to tell her she became a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, she chose not to answer. 

“I thought it was a robocall selling me a home warranty or something, so I kept declining it for a whole week,” she says. “Finally, someone texted me and they were like, ‘Hi, can you pick up your phone?’ Then I found out and burst into tears.”

The prestigious award goes to individuals on the precipice of a great discovery or game-changing idea. Past winners include authors, scientists, activists, journalists, and environmentalists.

Noble is a UCLA professor and author of “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.” In the book, she demonstrates how search engines reinforce harmful stereotypes.

“I started looking at different kinds of identities. I took them almost directly from the Census categories, and I did all these different keyword combinations,” she says. “I found over and over [that] ‘Black girls,’ ‘Latina girls,’ ‘Asian girls,’ ‘girls of color’ were almost exclusively bringing back pornography or hyper-sexualized websites.”

She thought about the children in her life and what it would mean for them to go on the internet and experience their identity in this way. That experience informed her mission moving forward: making sure vulnerable communities are represented more fairly and accurately in digital spaces.

She plans to use the $625,000 in award money to create the nonprofit Equity Engine, which she hopes will provide Black women with the time, space, and resources needed to do groundbreaking work.

“There are so many other women like me who see things and are working on things that are important,” she says. “Maybe they don't have to wait 10 years to get a boost.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Safiya Noble - Internet Studies and Digital Media Scholar, UCLA