English 560 – Algorithms of Oppression

 In your post create a counternarrative that speaks “back” to the broadly held ideas that search is neutral, factual, objective and or true. You may use a combination of written and graphic elements in your post ensuring that you have a holistic argument and that you use Noble’s work to build from in your post.

 

I decided to make this post one that I might share with students in an English 101 or DTC 101 class, as we are beginning to talk about information literacy, Google, and the web. The goal here is to show that Google uses an “advertising algorithm,” and that Google search is not a “neutral technology.”  Differences between Google and more formal reference databases reveal themselves when we simply compare a search* on Google with a search within a respected publication like the Encyclopedia Brittanica Online:

*note that I am logged out for all of the Google searches below.

Trump Search
Here we have a Google search for “donald trump.” Google overwhelmingly highlights current news headlines, Donald Trump’s own recent statements, and his own rhetorical presentations of himself. 

 

Trump Brittanica
In contrast with Google, this reference entry collection on Donald Trump features up front sourcing, a history of edits, an overview of Trump front and center, and useful links which give us some idea of major issues related to his career and presidency. 

I found the Encyclopedia Brittanica results interesting, because they provide a longer view of Trump’s presidency and career, as well as the issues with which he has been involved, in context. This contrasts markedly from the Google search of Trump, which overwhelmingly features headlines and snapshots from his activity (or stories about his activity) over the last 24 to 48 hours.

Even though Brittanica is not a public service, the motivations here are clearly different than those of Google: both feature advertising, but the (admittedly annoying) advertising at Brittanica Online is clearly delineated as such. The actual research is cited and presented in something resembling a fragmented, but long-form argument. What is perhaps most important about this comparison is that when searching for Trump using the 2018 Google algorithm and UI, at least half of the information immediately present at the top of the page has been written or otherwise produced by Trump or his organization.

None of this is particularly unexpected from an algorithmic perspective, when we remember that Google is a search company which makes its money from finding the most relevant content for a user’s search in the given moment. The problem is that we often forget that Google is not Brittanica or even Wikipedia. When we turn to Google for facts and information, its advertising algorithm is primed to give us instant gratification in the moment, but not to provide context or nuance.

Having lived and worked there for four years, Japan is often a sore spot for me when it comes to general American ideas of what the country and its people are like. The internet has perpetuated an idea of Japan as “cool” or especially “weird” which is highly unrealistic and steeped in a particular internet culture, not based in reality. As such, I decided to see how Google’s algorithm parsed “Japanese music.”

Japanese music search
I wish that I were more surprised at the two results mainly featured on this page: JPOP and music for “relaxation.”
Japanese music Brittanica
Again, context is important, and this entry provides a much more traditional look at Japanese music from the get-go, though of course it does get to JPOP.

Google’s algorithm has decided that the term “Japanese music,” in English, is mostly likely going to be used by those searching for one of two things (based on the placement of these items at the top of the search): music for “relaxation” and JPOP. The general characterization of Japanese traditional music as relaxing is a Western stereotype–often extended to most traditional music in Asia–which we can see coded directly into (or perhaps learned by) the algorithm itself. If we look further at the “relaxing” results here, we can see that most of these suggestions are for videos which feature long blocks of unnamed “Japanese music” of potentially dubious origin. Even if these videos do not contain songs originally produced for Western audiences, the videos themselves have lumped them together into “3 HOURS of the Best Traditional Japanese Music – Relaxing.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that the other result returned by Google here is JPOP, the most commonly consumed Japanese music. While JPOP is an understandable result for a search engine, interestingly enough, the bands featured on the side happen to be many JPOP bands which are popular with Western audiences, not necessarily the top hits within Japan itself. In contrast, the same search in Brittanica Online provides extremely detailed information on traditional Japanese music as part of a long argument about what makes Japanese music unique.

Both of these search examples make it clear that Google’s algorithm is geared for instant gratification and imbued with cultural assumptions. Though there are undoubtedly problems to be found with Brittanica Online, comparing the two websites reveals how far from neutral or authoritative Google’s search technology truly is.

 

 

One thought on “English 560 – Algorithms of Oppression

  1. kachristen

    Richard — What would you have your students evaluate? Would you also have them unpack Brittanica’s search paradigm (and how so). I can see this starting to build a counter narrative, but am not clear on the direction of the assignment and if it would be you or the student who is constructing the counter narrative — and exactly what is that narrative?

    Like

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