ACRL 2015 in Portland: Sunny Skies, Serious Conversation

Search-engine bias and digital democracy

March 28, 2015

Safiya Umoja Noble
Safiya Umoja Noble, assistant professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

Blue skies, temperatures in the high 60s, and food trucks on the third day of ACRL 2015 conference in Portland, Oregon, on March 27 brought attendees outside for lunch. Afterwards, contributed and invited papers, panels, and poster sessions—as well as a bustling exhibit hall—kept participants at sessions until 5 p.m.

Safiya Umoja Noble, assistant professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, talked about how search-engine bias affects women and girls negatively in her presentation, “Searching for Girls: Identity for Sale in the Age of Google.”

“What I’m asking us to think about today is: What does it cost us more broadly in terms of the human experience and degradation of our humanity in that we over-invest in private solutions to information and search?” she said.

Noble highlighted the power that Google wields over the internet and search results, as it now attracts 68% of searches on PCs and 83% on mobile. The first page of results is extremely important because, “Who goes to page 58? No one. OK, except in this room,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowded room.

Google rankings are heavily influenced by advertisers. Noble pointed out that Pew Research Center studies have shown that while most people believe in the accuracy and fairness of search engine results, the rankings are very much commercially driven.

“There’s absolutely a relationship between advertising and the kind of results we get. There are a number of factors that go into it,” she said.

When she was doing research on results for terms such as “black girls,” “Latina girls,” and “Asian girls” in 2009, the results always came back with porn or hypersexualized content. Nothing about Sasha or Malia Obama or other famous black girls appeared on the first page of search results.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry reception“Imagine being a young black girl and see how they feel about it,” she said. “Imagine what that feels like to discover that one’s identity is being read by people in that way. Imagine if you didn’t know that’s how the internet saw you.”

There’s an idea of a digital democracy, she noted. “You are part of the community that could never dislodge that misperception through a majority rule.”

Other sessions on Friday covered such broad-ranging topics as “Putting the Research in the Association of College and Research Libraries” to “Digital Humanities in 10 Pages” and “Models of Library Engagement with MOOCs.” Registration included one year of unlimited, free access to the virtual conference, where recorded sessions can be heard.

An evening dessert reception at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry gave access to the full museum and interactive exhibits, plus entertainment by composer and electric cellist Gideon Freudmann and local DJ Julius Major.