Dylann Roof’s Fateful Google Search

A new book explores the racial implications of the algorithms that structure our lives.

When Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 15th, 2017, the country was left wondering what factors conspired to lead a someone to commit such an atrocious act of violence. Some looked to his white supremacist roots. Others studied his psychology and his upbringing. One factor that didn’t come up, at least not in most circles: his Internet search history.

Safiya Umoja Noble, author of the new book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, believes it should have. Noble offers a compelling look into the structure of digitized information—most of it driven by advertising revenue—and how it perpetuates racist assumptions and ideologies. Whereas the information age’s most common social justice ambition has been to bridge “the digital divide” between Internet access and marginalized groups, Noble, who teaches at the University of Southern California, argues that access is less important than operation—that is, how search engines (read: Google) rank the pages that respond to our queries. Dylann Roof represents perhaps her most compelling case study.*

During Roof’s trial, his “manifesto,” which he posted on the white supremacist website www.lastrhodesian.com, proved pivotal to exploring Roof’s motivation for doing what he did. In it, Roof explains that his interest in the Trayvon Martin case—the 2012 incident in which George Zimmerman, often described as a “white Hispanic” shot and killed Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black man—sparked him to wonder how often blacks killed whites. He wrote, “this prompted me to type in ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.” He continued, “The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief.”

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