A new study of Google’s search engine has found that searches for names typically associated with black people are far more likely to throw up ads relating to criminal activity, leading one Harvard professor to suggest that the search engine could be “racially biased.”
For example, a search on Google for names primarily given to black babies, such as DeShawn, Jermaine or Darnell, was far more likely to show up ads such as “Jermaine Jones, Arrested?…”, linking to sites that perform criminal record checks.
Professor Latanya Sweeney studied search results on both Google.com and Reuters.com, which also displays Google ads. In particular, the professor analyzed the type of advertisements that appeared on Google when certain names were searched for.
According to the professor, those names that are commonly associated with black people are 25% more likely to generate adverts suggestive of criminality. Meanwhile, names usually associated with white people, such as Geoffrey, Emma and Jill, would generate more ‘neutral’ ads, for example “Looking for Geoffrey Smith?”.
Professor Sweeney says that her study raises the question of whether or not Google’s advertising technology “exposes racial bias in our society”, adding that the search giant may have to consider the “societal consequences like structural racism in the technology they design”.
“There is discrimination in the delivery of these ads. Alongside news stories about high school athletes and children can be ads bearing the child’s name and suggesting arrest. This seems concerning on many levels,” writes Professor Sweeney.
Regarding the cause of these apparent ‘racial discrepancies’, Professor Sweeney was reluctant to say how this might be happening without having further information about Google Adsense’s inner workings. However, she did note that Google’s algorithm – which adapts its ad results according to user habits – likely played a part in this.
In other words, Professor Sweeney suggests that the results could be a reflection of societal prejudices in general, as the ads that show up are often the ones that have been most clicked-on in the past.
“Over time, as people tend to click one version of ad text over others, the weights change, so the ad text getting the most clicks eventually displays more frequently,” she suggests.
However, Wired.co.uk suggests an alternative theory – that it could be the advertisers themselves who are being discriminatory, by bidding on keywords containing predominantly black-identifying names as opposed to white-identifying names. If true, this would suggest that advertisers have a stereotyped, racist view against blacks – especially when one considers that, according to the FBI, white people account for 69.6% of all arrests in the US.
Professor Sweeney concludes her report by suggesting that Google should take action to rectify this discrepancy, pointing out the adverse effect it could have on people with black-identifying names:
“Perhaps you are in competition for an award, an appointment, a promotion, or a new job, or engaged in any one of hundreds circumstances for which an online searcher seeks to learn more about you. Appearing alongside your list of accomplishments is an advertisement implying you may have a criminal record whether you actually have one or not. Worse, the ads don’t appear for your competitors.”