Have you ever wondered why when you search for Black-related news using Google, several ads selling access to criminal history and arrest records pop up? According to Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, that happens more often than we think and may expose society’s racial bias.
Prof Sweeney’s investigation suggests that names linked with black people – as defined by a previous study into racial discrimination in the workplace – were 25% more likely to have results that prompted the searcher to click on a link to search criminal record history.
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She found that names like Leroy, Kareem and Keisha would yield advertisements that read “Arrested?”, with a link to a website which could perform criminal record checks.
Searches for names such as Brad, Luke and Katie would not – instead more likely to offer websites that can provide general contact details.
“There is discrimination in the delivery of these ads,” concluded Prof Sweeney, adding that there was a less than 1% chance that the findings could be based on chance.
“Alongside news stories about high school athletes and children can be ads bearing the child’s name and suggesting arrest. This seems concerning on many levels.”
However, she was reluctant to pinpoint a cause for the discrepancies, saying that to do so required “further information about the inner workings of Google AdSense”.
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Google denies in racial bias in their ad placement and released the following statement to the BBC:
“We also have an ‘anti’ and violence policy which states that we will not allow ads that advocate against an organisation, person or group of people.”
“It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads,” the search giant said.
This could mean that user habits lead to an increase in the appearance of the ads — or it could mean that because the ads appear more, based on entered keywords, that they are clicked more, subsequently increasing the frequency that the ads appears — perpetuating the myth of the Black criminal.
In other words: Which came first, the racist chicken or the racist egg?