Google has come under fire this past week after a video circulated through social media showed different results when searching ‘three white teenagers’ compared to ‘three black teenagers’ on Google Images.
The video, posted by Twitter user @iBeKabir, showed him searching for the respective images, with the white teenagers showing happy laughing friends and the black teenagers showing images of mug shots.
Since the video was posted it has been retweeted more than 72,000 times and has gained widespread coverage with many social media users questioning whether the search giant is “racist”.
However, while many have condemned the most valuable company in the world, others have jumped to its defence, saying the image search algorithm results depends upon a lot of user behaviour and news sites.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Antoine Allen said the horrified reaction makes sense if people don’t understand the way SEO (search engine optimisation) and algorithms work.
“But once you have that knowledge, it enables you to direct your outrage more accurately,” he wrote.
“In short, Google doesn’t produce or tag the images themselves. Google is a search engine; search engines collect data from the internet. The most popular and most accurate search results make their way to the top. Websites and companies use SEO to get their images, products and articles to the top of the search engine. So you, the viewer, can see them.”
Allen goes on to explain when news organisations publish images they include a description and alt text to define the image. “So, if a story is about a white or black teenager committing a crime the image which accompanies it may well be associated with the phrase ‘black/white teenager’.”
See his video explanation below, which was published in March this year – before the video circulated.
In a statement to the Huffington Post UK about the issue, a Google spokesperson said: “Our image search results are a reflection of content from across the web, including the frequency with which types of images appear and the way they’re described online.
“This means that sometimes unpleasant portrayals of sensitive subject matter online can affect what image search results appear for a given query.
“These results don’t reflect Google’s own opinions or beliefs — as a company, we strongly value a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures.”
Google Australia declined to comment further and referred to a statement within The Wall Street Journal.
Image: Screenshot from Antoine Allen’s explanation video.