It's not that Google is racist or spreading propaganda (like some accusations levelled against the search engine on social media), it has more to do with its search algorithm and what it prioritises.
This is according to techies who explained why searching for "squatter camps in South Africa" features images of white South African citizens living in informal settlements more prominently than other races.
This comes after social media users on Thursday made reference to the results from searching "squatter camps" in the country, questioning why articles and images of poor white citizens were shown more than that of black citizens, who make up the largest group of dwellers living in informal settlements across the country.
According to tech guru Toby Shapshak, Google references what people search for.
Wow. @XolisaDyeshana told me to google Squatter Camps in South Africa and these are the images. This means that the only stories told about people in squatter camps are about white people because they are "not supposed to be in them." pic.twitter.com/MkuwNydwdB— Khaya Dlanga (@khayadlanga) June 13, 2018
"The more it understands what you search for, the faster it can give you a result, or suggest a result. You will see this when you begin to type a phrase and it suggests an ending," he said.
"There is a chance that many people have searched a phrase and chosen a specific result. Therefore, Google produces a similar result when you search a phrase similar to that one."
Shapshak said there are many variables and factors that influence Google's search function.
"For instance, when Google finds an article that matches the search terms you input, it prioritises that article. If you want to manipulate the search function, there are ways to make specific phrases and images come up, but this does not sound like something so nefarious," he said.
Comrades please Google "Squatter camps or skwatta camps in South Africa" Google will give you results showing white skwatta camps where white people live. As an outsider u would swear there is no black suffering in SA. This is sick. Imperialism doing the most to stop Land return— ZaneleLwana (@ZaneleLwana) June 14, 2018
"The most recent article that pops up on the subject was on white squatter camps. Therefore the search algorithm takes this into account. Google will give this prominence because it is probably the most read article on the subject."
Additionally, the South African media uses the phrase "informal settlements" rather than "squatter camps". Given the fact that the majority of the photos of "white squatter camps" originate from foreign media sites, it can be assumed that they are more likely to use the phrase "squatter camps" and it is this that may skew the searches rather than an absence of stories relating to people of colour living in these kinds of conditions. Searching using the term "informal settlements in South Africa" generates an entirely different set of search results.
An article from the Mail&Guardian, published in 2016, says Google's algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals that make it possible to guess what users might really be looking for.
"On a rudimentary level, Google's image search algorithm starts as an idea in an engineer's mind. If the conversations around beautiful women online are primarily centred on or around white women, then that will be the result of a search," the article states.
"Ultimately, what these results show is an echo of our online conversations. Of course, the algorithm was not developed with the intention of being racist, sexist, ableist or transphobic. The algorithm does what it's designed to do: reflect the content that's available."
Google South Africa was approached for comment but no response was received at the time of publication. Google's comments will be reflected in this article once it has been received.