The Miseducation of Dylann Roof

How does a child become a killer?
How did Dylann Roof go from a little boy who wasn’t raised in a racist home, from someone who
had black friends, to someone who murdered nine African Americans while they were praying
at an historic black church? Part of the answer lies in the story of how
fragile minds can be shaped by Google’s search algorithm. Dylann Roof posted a manifesto on the web
a few months before his murderous rampage. He said that he didn’t grow up in a racist
home or environment. The event that awakened him to racial issues, he said,
was the Trayvon Martin case: I kept hearing and seeing his name,
and eventually decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away
I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in
the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words “black on white crime” into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to
was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal
black on white murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was
very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds
of these black on white murders got ignored? Had Roof first come to another website, history
might have been different. He might have learned the truth, instead of the racist lies pushed
by the Council of Conservative Citizens. And the truth is that vast majority of white people
who are murdered are killed by other white people, not by black people as the Council’s
website suggests. The Council’s site wasn’t the only one peddling misleading statistics when Roof googled “black on white crime.” In fact, the amount of interest
in 2013 in this topic, stoked by white supremacist propagandizing, actually created a cybercascade
on this subject, linking Roof to these proliferating hate materials. Because of the way Google’s algorithm works, Roof’s search results were dominated by racist misinformation.
The truth was submerged. Google likes to present itself as though it’s
the new library for the world. It says that its algorithm uses a set of signals to determine
how trustworthy, reputable, or authoritative a source is. But whether because Google’s
algorithm is flawed or because it is easily manipulated by those well versed in search optimization, it apparently didn’t present trustworthy, reputable, or authoritative
information to Roof. Say I were to walk into a library and ask
for information on black on white crime. Well, there wouldn’t be a whole section filled
with white supremacists books that a librarian would point me to. Instead, a librarian would
probably lead me to the FBI’s crime statistics. That’s not necessarily what happens
when Google is my library. And it gets worse the more I use Google’s library.
In an attempt to cater to our preferences and ultimately to monetize them, Google’s
algorithm keeps giving us more and more of what we search for. And what Roof came to
want, as he was being miseducated, was proof of an epidemic of black murders of whites,
happily provided by America’s white supremacists. Another site that Roof came to was,
the oldest hate site on the web. It’s filled with racist and anti-Semitic materials shared
by more than 300,000 registered users from around the world. Here, Roof found himself
in a world of black on white crime— a major topic on Stormfront. We know this
because Roof posted on the site. Roof also found the Daily Stormer, a cesspool
of anti-black and anti-Semitic materials that calls itself the premier Alt-Right site. He
posted there as well. And in the world in which he found himself, thanks to Google,
there was little to counter the racist propaganda that dominated his search results. Roof was fed, and ate up, a lie. The problems with Google’s algorithm aren’t
confined to the issue of crime. The same happens when searching about Islam, or
“did the Holocaust happen.” Last February, staff from the Southern Poverty
Law Center visited Google and demonstrated that when one ran searches for Martin Luther King, Jr.,
hate sites were at the top of the page. They included, run by the
racists at Stormfront. Google told us that it couldn’t alter its
algorithm. But shortly after our visit, the search results for Martin Luther King seemed
to change. And there have been a few other instances when Google appears to have tweaked
its algorithm to avoid embarrassing results. A few years ago, it was pointed out that if
you typed Jew or Jewish into Google, all you got was anti-Semitic arguments on the evils
of Jews and why they should be exterminated. Google apparently tweaked its algorithm to
fix that. Google also probably tweaked its algorithm when Google maps was manipulated
and the White House was renamed with a racist term. But if Google is to live up to its claim that
its algorithm delivers trustworthy, reputable, and authoritative results, Google has much
more work to do. As the path Dylann Roof followed when he first typed the words “black on white
crime” into Google’s powerful search engine proves, there is a danger that the fragile
minded, the impressionable, and the young may find themselves in a world dominated by
misinformation and hate. It’s a fundamental problem that Google must address if it is to truly be the world’s library.

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