It all began, as so many things do today, with a tweet. Just this week, teenager Kabir Alli noticed that typing in “three black teenagers” vs. “three white teenagers” produced notably different results. In the case of “three black teenagers,” many of the search results were related to arrests. In the case of “three white teenagers,” many of the search results were for stock photos. Many are understandably angry — but who should we be angry at, and why?
Why Google Isn’t to Blame for the “Three Black Teenagers”
Google has come under fire for showing racially skewed results, but that’s not how Google works. Google works by promoting the most relevant results — the results that are most likely to be desired when searching for a certain query. This is why Redditors have been able to bomb Google in the past: they upvote an unrelated image under the title of a search query and that image begins to show up in Image Results. You can take a picture of a frog and label it “Grand Concert Pianist.” If the link becomes popular enough, queries for “Grand Concert Pianist” will come up with a frog.
Essentially, Google reflects the temperature of the global Internet zeitgeist. All it can do is reflect what is on the Internet. It’s an unbiased system that reveals social biases. In the case of “three black teenagers” vs. “three white teenagers”, it’s showing us that articles with the phrase three black teenagers tend to be crime-oriented. It’s also telling us that stock photographers do not take photos of black teenagers together as often as they take pictures of white teenagers together.
Why We’re To Blame for the “Three Black Teenagers”
But though Google might not be biased, it certainly is showing bias. It’s just our bias. Three black teenagers indicates that more positive media is being produced about white teens than black teens — and that race is generally made into an issue when crime is involved. It’s easy to become outraged at the most obvious source, which is the source that is providing the data. But that isn’t always the most effective path. Google cannot censor its search results without opening the door for some troubling issues. All it can do is reflect reality.
The “Three ___ Teenagers” Explored
Black teens and white teens aren’t the only ones with bias. “Three asian teenagers” almost universally produces images of girls and the stock photos are mixed in with porn. “Three mexican teenagers” produces cultural images interspersed with mugshots and gangs. These biases show the stereotypes that we most often connect with race — and it’s an interesting lesson in content and search engine optimization. For social media marketers, it’s even more interesting how quickly controversy about “three black teenagers” has dominated search results.