Safiya Noble left corporate America for academia. (John Davis)

Safiya Umoja Noble is a scholar in internet and information studies, African American studies, and gender studies at UCLA. She co-founded the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and is director of the UCLA Center on Race and Digital Justice.

Noble is the author of “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism” (NYU Press), a best-selling book on racist and sexist algorithmic bias in commercial search engines, and one of the first books cited for how the digital space shapes our thinking about race.   

L.A. Sentinel: When you hear, “Just Google it,” what rolls through your mind?

Safiya Noble: Most people believe because they can go to a computer and type some words into a box they get to the truth. But it really depends on what level of manipulation is happening in the background. Search engines like Google and Yahoo control keywords. And if you can control keywords, you can distort an understanding of contemporary racism in America and powerfully influence hundreds of millions of people.

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LAS: You left corporate America for academia. 

SN: I spent 15 years in Marketing and Advertising. When the recession hit, I went back to grad school. At that time, I believed Google to be an advertising company. But in academia, most of the people were relating to Google as if it were the new public library!

I thought about the early days of the internet, how many Black scholars, writers, and enthusiasts were digitizing Black culture, and the roles that search engines played in making Black culture legible — or even findable. Because if Google didn’t index the website where Black cultural archives were, for example, you might never find those [results] in the future.   

LAS: And that’s what led to your book, “Algorithms of Oppression.”

SN: It led to my first study about how keyword searches on Black women and girls resulted in pages and pages of pornography. How could it be that you didn’t have to add the word sex, but Black girls were synonymous with pornography? What would that mean for Black women that we couldn’t control that kind of misrepresentation because we didn’t have enough money to outspend the porn industry that controlled those keywords?

I thought this was an important study that I could use as an example to show the politics and the power of search engines over our lives, and “Algorithms of Oppression” became the outgrowth of my dissertation.  

LAS: What are your thoughts on the March 5 presidential primary? 

SN: The most important thing that people need to do is register to vote and participate in the election process. Americans will be voting on the future of democracy. People need to rely upon trusted organizations like the L.A. Sentinel, voter guides, racial justice organizations, talking to people who have similar concerns, and trying to be as knowledgeable as possible on the people that are running, and the issues.

African Americans face incredibly high stakes when the wrong people are elected, and who have racist, political agendas against our communities.  

LAS: Your middle name has great meaning. 

SN: I feel grounded in Black intellectual traditions that reflect Umoja [Swahili: unity], and I have a desire to see the greatest expansion of human and civil rights that we can achieve. I stay focused on people who are harmed and who are not fully enfranchised, and I dedicate my life’s work to solving those problems.

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