Is the Internet Racist?

When I first read this title I would think: “Yes! people on the internet are racist”. Or it may make you think “yes, I saw news articles that favor implicit racism or white supremacy.” With the access to the internet available for most people in Western society, it is almost obvious that part of the internet shares racist and white supremacist ideologies. But I am questioning if search engines themselves are racist. The algorithms of search engines favor making the most money, which pushes the results that make the most money for a company to the top. Algorithms also work by using the user’s past search history to give results relevant to what the user may want. Both aspects of the algorithm of search engines can be problematic. With activism on the rise in Western society and it becoming more socially acceptable within white communities for white people to act on racist injustice, a simple search of “Black Lives Matter protests” may bring up news articles on upcoming protests. On the other hand, this same search may also bring up news articles that negatively view the movement or push white supremacy ideas. Are these search results from what is making the internet browser more money or your own unknown racist search history?

If we place the blame of racist search results onto the search engine itself, are we also contributing to white silence (as a white person) and pushing off the thought that your own search results could have underlying messages of racism and white supremacy? I believe the answer to these questions takes into account both the search engine and your own bias. One example of this can be looking between two different news sites to compare the coverage on an event. One news site may lean politically left, while one leans politically right. By clicking on both news sites, it gives the search engines algorithm information that the user wants to see both conservative ideas and liberal ideas. If you continue to click onto the conservative articles and news sources search engines will start pushing more conservative articles onto the users results page. The way an algorithm may push ideas or opinions onto users without the user fully understanding the information is dangerous.

One example of this danger is from the book, Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble. One chapter in this book looks into the internet searches of Dylann “Storm” Roof. Dylann Roof opened fire on an African American Christian church during service after having a “racial awakening” by searching “black on white crime.” His search results were ones associated with white supremacy and groups that mission is “White America.” His own search results led him into his crime and gave him the idea of white supremacy and racism. Can search engines take part of the blame for these crimes or is it the implicit bias within the users search history? Did the algorithm of the search engine he chose get paid the most for bringing up racist organizations that lead him to such a radically racist awakening? Did he have previous searches that made the algorithm bring up this information as relevant? The answers to these questions are troubling. By answering the second question as yes, we can place a dispositional, internal, attribution onto Roof by saying he was the problem and not the search engine. By answering the first question as yes, we can place a situational attribution as it was the search engine bringing this information to him and he was led down the wrong path, but this is not an excuse for his actions, and cannot be used to silence the crime and lives taken. Answering this question as yes may continue white silence in Western society and forward the lack of responsibility by white communities. Both of the answers are troubling as it proves the danger of search engines and search algorithms in overt racism, but racism in Western society is systematic, personal, and complex. So my question is, is there a responsibility of large internet corporations to be better and become anti-racist?

1 thought on “Is the Internet Racist?”

  1. I think this is such an interesting topic and one that I feel many do not think about. I think it is important to look at who is helping to fund these large web databases. With algorithms becoming increasingly more catered to your search and social history, I feel it is very possible that these large internet corporations can lead one into a deeper hole of false and racist information. I think it is really important that we understand the ways in which the internet works and continue to educate ourselves and others as we become a more technologically advanced society.


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