ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO, Safiya Umoja Noble, an associate professor in the departments of information studies and African American studies, was looking for activities to entertain her preteen stepdaughter. But when she Googled “Black girls” for ideas, her search results were full of sexist and racist pornography. Noble wanted to know why this type of information was at the top of her search results, and that led her on a path to critically study how power works on the internet. Her research became the 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, a bestseller that has fascinated many — including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Noble also co-founded and co-directs the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry with Sarah T. Roberts, an associate professor of information studies. The interdisciplinary research center, which champions racial and economic justice in the tech sector, recently received a $2.9 million award from the Minderoo Foundation to launch an initiative that will explore the intersection of technology, power and society.
How did the idea for the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry come about?
When Sarah and I were graduate students a decade ago at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it was very difficult to find people who were interested in critically studying how power works on the internet. So we decided to make a center for students and scholars who want to look at the social, political and economic problems connected to the internet.
My work focuses on how the internet propagates racist disinformation and sexist ideas, and how we can think about alternative, public interest technology. Professor Roberts’ work expands our understanding of how commercial content moderation happens on large-scale media platforms and the harms of that type of labor, which is largely invisible.
The center has had some exciting announcements, including the Minderoo Foundation’s $2.9 million gift and the partnership with the Archewell Foundation, an organization started by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. With this funding, what does the center have planned?
We are very fortunate to have received our initial anchor funding from the Minderoo Foundation. It has afforded us the opportunity to hire staff, researchers and graduate students, and we can really start to build the center and a roster of research activity. We’re also looking at how we can communicate our research through film or media in ways that extend the reach and dissemination of our research findings. We have just hired an artist-in-residence, Oge Egbuonu, and that will allow us to make scholars’ amazing ideas more visible. We are grateful to see her work supported through a gift to the center from the Omidyar Foundation. Recently, the Ford Foundation’s support has helped us fund a data scientist, Robyn Hillman-Harrigan, who is working on issues of racial justice and gender equity, in partnership with Feminist.AI, an important community organization.
In the case of the Archewell Foundation, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex had read my book, and they were interested in how we could work together to address the harms that vulnerable people experience through digital technologies. We’re planning to host some convenings and do educational work together, organized by Dr. Stacy Wood, our director of research, and Vanessa Rhinesmith, who works as our chief of staff and day-to-day liaison with the Archewell Foundation.
How has the technology landscape changed since you started your research 10 years ago?
I’ve spent a long time researching, writing and talking about uncovering a variety of technologies’ harmful practices. And now regulators call us often and ask for the latest state-of-the-art research in this area. So it’s different than it was a decade ago, but there’s still a lot to do.
Students “feel a moral responsibility for their work in the world. They don’t want to be a part of the mistakes that they see happening right now.”
We wanted to create the center for research that goes against the grain. For us, we’re trying to point to the conditions that are unfavorable to a multiracial, equitable democracy — an experiment that is still underway in the U.S. I study the outsized control and influence of internet technology companies, which includes specific things like discriminatory algorithms and AI, harmful predictive analytics, racist and sexist propaganda and disinformation, and anti-science propaganda — all of which is shared with speed and at scale. It has dire consequences for the public, so I work on mitigation and re-imagining public goods and democratic institutional counterweights to these companies. This includes strengthening libraries, universities, schools, public media, public health and public information institutions.
How would you describe your students’ relationship to technology?
I am teaching the first and second generations of students who have grown up on the internet. They know how harmful it can be, and they want to better understand why and what they can do about it. We need students to be trained to think about the impact and the import of their work.
I’m teaching a data, ethics and society course this year, and many of the students are engineers and statistics majors. I think that’s a signal that they feel a moral responsibility for their work in the world. They don’t want to be a part of the mistakes that they see happening right now, and that is really energizing. It gives me a lot of hope.
Before becoming a professor, you spent more than a decade working in marketing. Why did you transition to academia?
When I was in my late 30s, I got married, and my husband, Otis, asked, “Why don’t you go follow that real dream of going back to grad school?” Working through the devastation of the recession on our family and colleagues became a good time to go back to school and reinvent myself. We moved to the Midwest, and I was living down the street from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has the No. 1 library and information science program in the country. I was given a full fellowship to study information and society.
Now, I co-lead a world-class research center focused on these very issues at UCLA. Our work is creating opportunities for women, especially other Black women, to do incredibly important work. The center is an outpost for people who have not traditionally been listened to and who care about the implications of technology on society. We’ve been at it for a long time, and we are grateful to see funding and support finally flow toward these important issues.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s April 2021 issue.