Co-founder and co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry shares perspectives on harmful algorithms.
Safiya Umoja Noble, associate professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and African American Studies, took part in a Time 100 Talk on Oct. 20, moderated by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, along with Tristan Harris, president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The author of “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” Professor Noble shared her perspectives on how digital media platforms profit from amplifying hate and violence against vulnerable populations.
“I think that it’s really imperative that we understand that the technologies are already existing in systems of structural oppression, structural racism, global social, political, and economic inequality,” said Noble. “If you are already part of a vulnerable community that has been misrepresented or has been targeted with hate or disinformation, calls for genocide… calls for racist violence against you, or misogyny… the technologies are actually able to, at speed and scale, amplify those kinds of messages.”
“… The harms don’t just live in the platforms. They often extend to shaping behaviors that people also act upon. So, this is one of the reasons why we have to really understand the power and potency of these technologies and whether indeed some of them should even exist.”
Professor Noble emphasized the tendency of not only social media, but search engines and ad-driven platforms, to use racism and sexism to gain users.
“One of the things that is highly incentivized is…the speed through which some of the worst types of content can flow though platforms,” she noted. “Those things don’t necessarily start in Silicon Valley, but I think there’s really little regard when companies are looking at maximizing the bottom line through engagement at all costs. It actually has a disproportionate kind of harm and cost to… vulnerable people.”
Noble stated that voting for policies and individuals who can work to change the spread of racism, sexism and other forms of hate and violence online is an effective way to create a more just digital environment.
“I think part of what we have to do is to understand the way that policy truly shapes the environment,” she said. “One of the challenges when you talk about why people can’t do things like fully disentangle from disinformation on the internet, is because so many of the public democratic counterweights—schools, universities, public libraries, public media—these are the places where the public becomes well-educated.
“And when you have a sector like the tech sector that is so extractive—it doesn’t pay taxes, it offshores its profits, it defunds, in fact, the democratic educational counterweights, those are the places where we really need to intervene. That’s where we make systemic long-term change. We reintroduce funding and resources into those spaces, so then, people aren’t just reliant on Facebook for their news because they have no other choice.”
Professor Noble asserted that despite the pervading oppression in the online environment, it can still be used for positive change as well.
“We know, for example, that the Black Lives Matter movement was really galvanized in many ways because of social media,” she said. “Even though we are experiencing harms, we want to remember we still have agency. We have the ability to use some of these platforms to resist, to meet each other, and to make connections.
“There are some really powerful things that I think we want to imagine and take a hold of in the space too. We just want to be critical, thoughtful, engaged users and be able to discern what’s happening in the space. That’s gives people a lot more power than feeling that it’s a fait accompli that we’re in a space that is void of possibility.”
Noble is a co-founder and co-director of the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at UCLA. She also holds appointments in African American Studies and Gender Studies at UCLA. Her research is centered on the design of digital media platforms on the internet and their impact on society, and emphasizes the ways that digital media impacts and intersects with issues of race, gender, culture, and technology.
Professor Noble is a research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and has been appointed as a commissioner on the Oxford Commission on AI & Good Governance (OxCAIGG). She is a board member of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, serving those vulnerable to online harassment. She is the recipient of a Hellman Fellowship and the UCLA Early Career Award, and is regularly quoted for her expertise on issues of algorithmic discrimination and technology bias by national and international press including The Guardian, the BBC, CNN International, USA Today, Wired, Time, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The New York Times, and a host of local news and podcasts.
Recently, Noble was named in the “Top 25 Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers of 2019” by Government Technology magazine. Noble currently serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, and is the co-editor of the Commentary & Criticism section of the Journal of Feminist Media Studies, among many other editorial and advisory boards.
In 2018, Professor Noble was awarded the top Distinguished Alumni Award at Fresno State, her undergraduate alma mater, and in 2020, she was awarded the Distinguished Alumna Award from the iSchool Alumni Association (ISAA). Noble is also the inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Award winner from the Illinois Alumni Association at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
To view Professor Noble in conversation with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Tristan Harris, visit the Time 100 Talks website.
Photo by John Davis