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Search Engines, Algorithms and Bias

Introduction

Image of women's eyes with Google lens

Search engines are not neutral, and their results often contain inherent bias, yet their usage is deeply interwoven into our daily lives. In 2018, Professor Safiya Umoja Noble published Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, challenging the idea of search engines' benevolence.  She writes, "The public generally trusts information found in search engines. Yet much of the content surfaced in a web search in a commercial search engine is linked to paid advertising, which in part helps drive it to the top of the page rank, and searchers are not typically clear about the distinctions between 'real' information and advertising (p.38)."  

What are Algorithms?

An algorithm is a set of rules or instructions used to solve a problem or perform a task. Computer algorithms designed to make predictions and answer questions are called automated decision systems

Algorithms are used to:

  • Sort resumes for employers
  • Decide access to and eligibility for social services
  • Determine who sees advertisements for jobs, housing or loans
  • Choose which employees to hire, fire and promote
  • Determine access to housing and credit
  • Predict crime and risk of recidivism
  • Decide hospital treatment plans and access to insurance

What is Algorithmic Bias and Why Does it Matter?

Algorithmic bias occurs when an algorithmic decision creates unfair outcomes that unjustifiably and arbitrarily privilege certain groups over others. This matters because algorithms act as gatekeepers to economic opportunity. Companies and our public institutions use algorithms to decide who gets access to affordable credit, jobs, education, government resources, health care and investment.

Source: Algorithmic Bias Explained: How Automated Decision-Making Becomes Automated Discrimination

The Autocomplete Truth - "A series of ads, developed as a creative idea for UN Women by Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai, uses genuine Google searches to reveal the widespread prevalence of sexism and discrimination against women. Based on searches dated 9 March, 2013 the ads expose negative sentiments ranging from stereotyping as well as outright denial of women’s rights." Source: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2013/10/women-should-ads

UN Women's Ad campaign the autocomplete truth

Photo: Ad series for UN Women by Memac Oglivy and Mather Dubai