UCLA’s latest MacArthur Genius claims search engines reinforce oppressive stereotypes

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

“I thought it was a robocall selling me a house guarantee or something, so I kept turning it down for a whole week,” she says. “Finally, someone texted me and said, ‘Hello, can you pick up your phone? Then I found it and burst into tears.

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

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

“I started looking at different types of identities. I took them almost straight from the census categories, and I did all these different keyword combinations, ”she says. “I have found again and again [that] “Black girls”, “Latin girls”, “Asian girls”, “colored girls” brought back almost exclusively pornography or hypersexualized 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 that way. This experience informed its mission moving forward: to ensure that vulnerable communities are more fairly and accurately represented in digital spaces.

She plans to use the $ 625,000 reward to create the nonprofit organization Equity engine, which she hopes will provide black women with the time, space, and resources to do groundbreaking work.

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


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Rosemary S. Bishop