There has been some interesting research recently about whether or not the name at the top of a résumé impacts whether or not a person will get an interview. Sadly, one study found that “white-sounding” names are downloaded 17% more often than “black-sounding” names and those with black-sounding names were less likely to get callbacks. Could it be because negative perceptions are attached to black-sounding names based on past experiences?
In another somewhat mysterious study, researcher Latanya Sweeney found that on a website that checks public records, InstantCheckmate.com, the advertisements from GoogleAds changed significantly depending on the name she typed in. Sweeney discovered that when she typed in a black-sounding name, the ads were 25% more likely to suggest that a person with that name had an arrest record, regardless of whether or not the person had ever been arrested. Could such search results and ad results, in time, affect our perception of people and the names that they are attached to?
I decided to take these research studies and do a quick (and admittedly unscientific) analysis of my own. I wondered what a Google Image search would bring up if I typed in “black” names and “white” names. My results seem just about as mysterious as those from Sweeney’s study. In their book Freakonomics, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner compiled a list of the “whitest” and “blackest” names in America. I took the top 10 from each list of boy names and typed them into Google Images to see what I would find. On my computer screen, I looked at all the results that fit on one screen at a time, without scrolling (my screen is a 26″ monitor). Typically, I would be able to view anywhere between 45 and 60 images for each search.
The “black” names I typed in, in 10 separate searches, included the following: Deshawn, DeAndre, Marquis, Darnell, Terrell, Malik, Trevon, Tyrone, Willie, and Dominique. The “white” names I typed in were Jake, Connor, Tanner, Wyatt, Cody, Dustin, Luke, Jack, Scott, and Logan. Here are my image results for two sample searches, “Scott” and “Deshawn”:
After 10 searches of black names, I viewed 502 total images. What I found was surprising (and discouraging). Forty-two of those images (about 8% or roughly 1 in every 12) were either mugshots or police criminal photos posted in newspapers or criminal registries.
Of the 10 black names that I typed in, though, 5 were heavily dominated by celebrity images. For example, when I typed in “Terrell,” nearly 100% of the photos were either of Terrell Owens, the NFL football star, or supermodel Mercedes Terrell. Or, when I typed in “Willie,” nearly all of the photos were either of singer Willie Nelson or Willie from The Simpsons TV show. And the search for “DeAndre” pulled up almost entirely photos of American Idol phenom DeAndre Brackensick. Because these searches might be considered exceptional, I wondered what the percentage would be if I were to remove them from my search and look at more randomized images. What I found was that 41 out of 263 total images were of mugshots or crime suspect photos. That is over 15%, or nearly 1 in every 6 images!
What is most interesting is the comparison to the white name search. Of the 506 total images searched, only 2 were of mugshots or crime suspects. That is less than 0.4% or 1 one in every 250. Quite a significant difference! Certainly, more people out there with the name of of Connor or Jake or Wyatt or Luke have a criminal record, but when I searched each of those names, zero of the images were of mugshots or crime suspects.
Does this mean that Google is being racist? Not exactly. To be fair to Google (or any other search engine company), image results in a search engine are based on a number of complex factors and the results change every day. The images that are shown are based on Search Engine Optimization results, which combines factors about site content, number of visits, links to the site, and so forth. Google has control over the algorithm that creates the results, but they have little or no control over the people who run the websites and tweak them to climb search engine results lists. Google may not be racist, but we might wonder why the search results clearly appear to be. What is happening within our culture and on the internet that causes such a discrepancy in the way images displayed in random searches relate to names and crimes?
Regardless of how the names get to the final results page, I can’t help but wonder about the perceptions we garner daily from seemingly innocuous searches. We might do well to pay closer attention to the advertisements and images that show up when we read material online. Even the advertisements on this webpage were selected by Google according to the content of the article and your own search habits and location. Did you notice what Google thought you wanted to know about?
If you were to randomly type in a man’s name into a Google Images search, you would probably expect to see a wide array of images of people with that name. You might see anything from a family photo to a circus performer to a high school party scene. But would the collection of images as a whole affect the way you perceive that name (and, hence, people who claim that name as their own)? Research has repeatedly shown that our memories are inaccurate, built on collections of images and experiences that we are exposed to throughout our lives. Perhaps unknowingly, when we are exposed to images of people doing certain things or associated with certain topics, it is very possible that we unintentionally skew our perception of them. During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example, images were repeatedly shown in the news of black men “looting.” The unintentional consequence of this, however, is that people have a stored memory of black men looting and little, if any, recollection of white men (or women) looting. Perception has changed.
What we type in and search for on the internet, similarly, may have more lasting effects on what we remember than we realize. When we are exposed to images in search engine results over time, it is very possible that we make subconscious links to the search engine terms and the images that are provided to us. It’s an unfortunate, scary, but quite realistic thought. It is especially disconcerting when race is involved and image searches provide disturbing results.