MacArthur Fellows Program

Safiya Noble

Internet Studies and Digital Media Scholar | Class of 2021

Highlighting the ways digital technologies and internet architectures magnify racism, sexism, and harmful stereotypes.

Title
Internet Studies and Digital Media Scholar
Affiliation
Department of Gender Studies and African American Studies, University of California / Los Angeles
Location
Los Angeles, California
Age
51 at time of award
Published September 28, 2021

About Safiya's Work

Safiya Noble is an internet studies and digital media scholar transforming our understanding of the ways digital technologies and internet architectures replicate and magnify discriminatory racial, gender, and power dynamics. Drawing on training in information science and a deep understanding of the intersections among culture, race, and gender, she is revealing how the artificial intelligence and algorithms underpinning technologies we use daily have both real and negative impacts on the lives of vulnerable people, particularly women and girls of color.

In her book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018), Noble demonstrates that search engines are not sources of neutral and objective information. Rather, economic incentives (primarily advertising revenue) and the social values assigned to ideas, objects, or people shape search engine results. For example, the first page of results of a 2011 keyword search for “Black girls” in Google yielded mostly pornographic and hypersexualized content, exacerbating racist and sexist stereotypes about Black women. The same stereotyping was true for other racialized categories of women like Asian and Latina girls. Noble explains that the classification and ranking methods used by Google’s proprietary search algorithms (at that time, PageRank) are based on traditional frameworks for organizing information, namely, the Library of Congress classification system created in the late nineteenth century, which has a deep history of exclusion and misrepresentation. Commercial search engines are now ubiquitous—used daily by educators, students, parents, and the public to understand the world around us and make crucial, life-altering decisions—and Noble points to the need for greater accountability and regulation of tech companies that have an outsized share of power over how we understand the world. She details how bias embedded within search algorithms promotes disinformation, reduces the political and social agency of marginalized people, and can lead to real-world violence. For example, internet propaganda blaming Asians for the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in escalating violence against Asian Americans, and Dylann Roof massacred nine African American churchgoers after reading White nationalist websites that were highly ranked in web searches on race and crime.

In addition to her research, Noble works with engineers, executives, artists, and policymakers to think through the broader ramifications of how technology is built, deployed, and used in unfair ways. She challenges them to examine the harms algorithmic architectures cause and shows the necessity of addressing the civil and human rights that are violated through their technologies. Noble is also co-founder of the newly established University of California at Los Angeles Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, an interdisciplinary research center focused on the intersection of human rights, social justice, democracy, and technology. Noble’s work deepens our understanding of the technologies that shape the modern world and facilitates critical conversations regarding their potential harms.

Biography

Safiya Noble received a BA (1995) from California State University at Fresno and an MS (2009) and PhD (2012) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Noble has been affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles since 2014, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Gender Studies and Department of African American Studies and holds affiliate appointments in the School of Education and Information Studies. She has co-edited two additional books, The Intersectional Internet and Emotions, Technology, and Design, and is co-editor of the “Commentary and Criticism” section of Feminist Media Studies. Her research has been published in The Scholar and Feminist Online, the Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, and InVisible Culture. Her non-profit community work to foster civil and human rights, the expansion of democracy, and intersectional racial justice is developing at The Equity Engine.

In Safiya's Words

Smiling woman with long curly black hair wearing a black jacket and white top. Quote text beneath photo: We have more data and technology than ever, and we have more economic and social injustice to go with it. What if we thought of data in more complex ways that reveal how it is used for racial profiling, digital redlining, and practices that undermine civil and human rights?

 

We have more data and technology than ever, and we have more economic and social injustice to go with it. What if we thought of data in more complex ways that reveal how it is used for racial profiling, digital redlining, and practices that undermine civil and human rights? What if we questioned unlimited access to personal identifiable information being bought and sold in a 24/7 marketplace? How will we undo the making of autonomous AI systems that threaten life on the planet? How do unregulated technologies concentrate wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the 99 percent? These are some the big questions we must grapple with immediately if we want to see more freedom, more democracy, and more humanity for the generations to come.

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Please credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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