Online racism or good marketing?

A computer scientist at Harvard writes that any searches involving black-sounding names are more likely to be accompanied by ads suggestive of a criminal record than white-sounding names.

For her paper, Latanya Sweeney collected about 2000 names suggestive of race. She used the names in Google and Reuters searches and reported that black-identifying names were more likely to generate ads that including the word “arrest.” (Here’s a sample of the search results)

Coincidence? She claims there’s a 0.1 per cent chance that the ads were generated by chance.


First names, assigned at birth to more black or white babies, are found predictive of race (88% black, 96% white), and those assigned primarily to black babies, such as DeShawn, Darnell and Jermaine, generated ads suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86 percent of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 percent on the other, while those assigned at birth primarily to whites, such as Geoffrey, Jill and Emma, generated more neutral copy: the word “arrest” appeared in 23 to 29 percent of name searches on one site and 0 to 60 percent on the other. On the more ad trafficked website, a black-identifying name was 25% more likely to get an ad suggestive of an arrest record. A few names did not follow these patterns. All ads return results for actual individuals and ads appear regardless of whether the name has an arrest record in the company’s database.

A Google spokesperson, however, tells MIT Technology Review the company’s Ad Words program does not engage in racial profiling.

Here’s the original paper.

  • BJ

    I haven’t completely read the study yet, but on the surface I see several potential flaws with the ‘study’. Mainly that Google doesn’t just create ad’s from thin air, people buy ad’s they want to have people see.

    3 other ‘off the top of my head’ issues:

    1. She doesn’t appear to have a true random sample.

    2. She appears to have used only one computer for her searches. Appears to only have search for the names once.

    3. Only one advertiser used the word ‘arrest’ in it’s advertising, according to the study.

    This study seems flawed in how it was created. I don’t doubt that the result might be the same regardless, published works should have higher standard. She doesn’t present alternative reasons for her result (opening criticism to those with alternative reasons). I don’t know where this was published for review. Looks like it was ‘just’ a study done for an Organization.

    PS Perhaps a list of names of people arrested was used in generation of the targeted advertising? We know people that are not white are arrested in greater numbers – and that is a topic for another day.

  • TheKnowerseeker

    BJ, I agree. In fact, your final, postscript point was the first that came to my mind.