igital media platforms like Google and Facebook may disavow responsibility for the results of their algorithms, but they can have tremendous — and disturbing — social effects. Racist and sexist bias, misinformation, and profiling are frequently unnoticed byproducts of those algorithms. And unlike public institutions (like the library), Google and Facebook have no transparent curation process by which the public can judge the credibility or legitimacy of the information they propagate.
That misinformation can be debilitating for a democracy — and in some instances deadly for its citizens. Such was the case with the 2015 killings of nine African-American worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., who were victims of a vicious hate crime. In a manifesto, the convicted gunman, Dylann Roof, wrote that his radicalization on race began following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen, and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. Roof typed “black on White crime” in a Google search; he says the results confirmed (a patently false notion) that black violence on white Americans is a crisis. His source? The Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “unrepentantly racist.” As Roof himself writes of his race education via Google, “I have never been the same since that day.”