Earlier in June 2018, a message made the rounds among South Afticans on social media and WhatsApp, it read "Google 'squatter camps in SA' and see what happens." The search results sparked a lot of debate among South Africans.

This is because, specifically the Google Image Search results, showed only squatter camps where white people live. If you're South African, this is rather odd as you would be aware that the astounding majority of squatter camps in South Africa are inhabitant by black people.

In South Africa, over 5 million black South Africans live in squatter camps. This is according to an AfricaCheck investigation which used data from Statistics South Africa. This number means that black South Africans who live in squatter camps (informal dwellings) are 385 times more than the number of white South Africans that live in squatter camps in South Africa.

One of the big points made by a lot of people in the debates was that these Google Image Search results were possibly part of a planned propaganda/misinformation plan, involving Google, to show how white people have suffered since the dawn of democracy in South Africa since 1994.

This time it's not just Google Search

However, unlike in a recent incident where it seemed only Google Search was biased by bringing up images of Donald Trump when you searched the word "idiot", this time the results are not just unique to Google Search.

google squatter camps in sa
Google search results for "squatter camps in SA"

google bing squatter camps in sa
Bing search results for "squatter camps in SA"

google duckduckgo squatter camps in sa
DuckDuckGo search results for "squatter camps in SA"

As you can see, similar images are returned across all three search engines when you search for " squatter camps in SA." It's important to mention though that DuckDuckGo uses Bing's search API. Thus, we do expect search results from both of them to be similar.

"Building a quality search experience is a complex, dynamic challenge, and we will never be finished. Because our systems are surfacing and organizing information and content from the web, the search can mirror biases or stereotypes that exist on the web and in the real world. We understand that this can cause harm to people of all races, genders and other groups who may be affected by such biases or stereotypes, and we share the concern about this. We have worked, and will continue to work, to improve image results for all of our users," said a Google spokesperson in a statement to iAfrikan when we approached them to understand why the search results for "squatter camps in SA" returned the images they did.

Microsoft and DuckDuckGo had not responded to any questions at the time of publishing.

If the problem is not with Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo, then what is the problem?

Search Engine Optimization

Google is partially right in its response when it says that "search can mirror biases or stereotypes that exist on the web and in the real world." In its documentation, Google mentions that "[image search] analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption and dozens of other factors to determine the image content."

This is where Search Engine Optimization can explain why we see white squatter camps and not black squatter camps when we search for "squatter camps in SA." In simple terms, SEO is the practice of trying to get a high number of visitors to a website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by search engines. Some of the techniques involved in achieving good SEO include keyword research, linking, how many times a keyword is repeated in the text of the website, and more. However, the ranking of the website also counts.

What this means, in this case, is that whoever writes an article determines (mostly, there are other factors too as mentioned above) whether an image appears in Google Image Search results or not. This partly depends on the keywords they use adjacent or in the caption of the image, not necessarily the "content" of the image. Also, Google indexes the images on a website the same way it indexes web pages, by crawling across the Internet periodically.

A look at websites who were returning these images at the time we started the investigation (June 2018), showed that they were high ranking media websites like the UK's The Guardian which ran an article titled "Eyewitness: White South African Poverty"" among others. Given The Guardian's ranking (Domain Authority) and other websites that linked to their articles on "white poverty", this resulted in their photos appearing on the first page of search engine results.

The other issue this highlights is how few high profile websites write about black squatter camps in South Africa using that phrase, or at all.

Right now, when you search for " squatter camps in SA", it's like an echo chamber filled with earth articles, like this one you're reading, talking about how (and why) when you Google "squatter camps in SA", photos of white people's squatter camps in South Africa appear.


Cover image credit: Screenshot of Google search results for "squatter camps in SA"