Online advertising’s racism mess (Participation)

Online advertising’s racism mess

Why does Google’s ad network think people with names like Latanya and Rasheed have an arrest record?

By Andrew Leonard

Online advertising's racism mess

Harvard University’s Latanya Sweeney discovered an odd thing after searching for her own name via Google last year. An advertisement from an outfit called Instant Checkmate appeared, featuring her name followed by the word “Arrested?”

For a subscription fee, Instant Checkmate searches public records for criminal records. Sweeney paid the fee, but found no evidence that she herself had been arrested.

A specialist in online privacy, Sweeney was intrigued and suspicious. So she created an experiment to test whether Google’s AdSense technology was delivering different advertisements depending on whether the name being searched for sounded black or white. Were searches for names like Latisha or Rasheed returning advertisements containing different language than searches for Greg and Meredith? (I first learned about Sweeney’s research from an article in Technology Review.)

Her results were conclusive: at one host of Google AdSense ads, she writes, “a black-identifying name was 25 percent more likely to get an ad suggestive of an arrest record.” According to Sweeney, “there is less than a 0.1 percent probability that these data can be explained by chance.”

In her paper, Sweeney doesn’t answer definitively the question of who exactly is to blame for the clear pattern of racism she uncovered. But the most disturbing implication of her research is the possibility that neither Instant Checkmate nor Google did anything wrong on purpose. Google’s AdSense algorithm may just be automatically reflecting society’s built-in racism.

Here’s how AdSense works, according to Sweeney.

Google understands that an advertiser may not know which ad copy will work best, so an advertiser may give multiple templates for the same search string and the “Google algorithm” learns over time which ad text gets the most clicks from viewers of the ad. It does this by assigning weights (or probabilities) based on the click history of each ad copy. At first all possible ad copies are weighted the same, they are all equally likely to produce a click. Over time, as people tend to click one version of ad text over others, the weights change, so the ad text getting the most clicks eventually displays more frequently. This appr


6 thoughts on “Online advertising’s racism mess (Participation)

  1. This whole story goes to prove how deeply racial stereotypes are imbedded into our society. Consciously or unconsciously, as humans we hold many negative stereotypes to races. In order to overcome this as a society, we can’t have social media and search engines like Google reinforcing these stereotypes. Millions of people go to google because its considered to be a reliable search engine. While there, they are unconsciously seeing advertisements telling them that Africans Americans are all criminals. This can really stop and make you think about what other things you do everyday or see everyday that may be pushing racial stereotypes into your brain.

  2. As far as the names go this reminds me of when i had a conversation about people applying for jobs. Basically they had a hard time getting the job because of there name, like DeAndre or Demonte. Thats something i don’t understand because what does the persons name have to do with anything. And its a shame that someones name can even be a stereotype, ok yes he has a black name but it doesn’t mean that he is more likely to get arrested than a person with a different name. Its just way to hard to overcome certain situations when when media throws it at us on a daily basis.

  3. These types of stories are so unjust and it goes to show how much our society bases their opinions purely off of race. One of my dad’s coworkers grew up in Mexican City and moved to the United States when he was in his early 20’s. He tried to get a job for almost a year and no one would hire him. When he was around the age of 25 he changed his name from Jose to Ben and got a job at Boeing almost immediately after that. I do believe that him not being able to get a job was because his resume was probably often looked over because of his Mexican name. I think that things like this happen a lot in our society and people with non-white sounding names get overlooked everyday, no matter how qualified they really are for that job.

  4. I feel that the whole different kinds of ads for different races can be a marketing scheme. You would not expect a caucasian to buy hair products that are meant for african american women which is why lots of different hair product companies have different kinds of products that cater to the needs of all races. To specifically address this article I would say that it is on the racist side because of the fact that the ads aren’t product related but more of stuff that would fit into stereotypes of different races. Just as the woman to conducted this experiment says, african american names are more likely to get ads that relate to arrest records which I find to be a little disturbing. Even though google might have different kinds of motives whatever they may be, they can’t escape the fact that those motives are probably rooted in racist stereotypes.

  5. After reading this article and other peer responses I have to agree with the overall opinion presented. How sad it truly is that racial stereotypes have been grinded into our society so deep that it appears on something such as Google. Personally, I doubt that Google is ran by a bunch of racists who plan for arrested to show up after more African-American sounding names. However, with the way the algorithm of the search engines works the more something is searched the more likely it is to be added first over something sounded more positive. This goes to show the racism in our society though. People have to go onto Google and search so and so arrested so many times for it to be the most added. Yes, it is sad but we also must think of the context some people may be searching. Such as checking a friend, son, family member, etc. yet still. That is no excuse for the built in unconscious racism (for this situation) in the Google system. It’s another negative reinforcement of stereotypes that only hinder society as a whole.

  6. From this article, it can be seen that the racial problems exist in most area of society,even in Online advertising like Google’s ad network. In my opinion, These confusing advertising will bring many people lots of problems, and it also will affect the lives of many innocent people.

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