A strange thing happened when typing "dog menu" into the restaurant ratings website and app Yelp. It automatically generated suggested searches. There were dog massage, hot dogs, pet groomers.
Also: "dog meat."
But it got more disturbing. Take Yelp up on that offer to show you the best restaurants for dog meat, and it almost always suggested a Korean restaurant. Swap dog for cat, and Yelp pointed toward Chinese restaurants.
The search results were duplicated by the Tampa Bay Times in Yelp searches for restaurants in a dozen U.S. cities and regions, including Tampa Bay, Chicagoland, the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Boston, Austin, Seattle, Atlanta and Jacksonville.
Almost always, Korean restaurants appeared as sponsored results at the top — advertisements the restaurants paid for. "Cat meat" revealed a similar pattern, though the results, both sponsored and unpaid, almost always prioritized Chinese restaurants.
Using Yelp’s own tool for searching within user-generated reviews of those restaurants turned up no reviews for Korean restaurants containing the words "dog meat." Often they did not even contain the word "dog," though occasionally a reviewer used the word "dog" in the context of the restaurant being dog friendly, or referring to feeding leftovers to a pet at home.
Reviews that users had left for Chinese restaurants that Yelp recommended in a search for "cat meat" were more likely to contain derogatory references to cat meat, though sometimes those restaurant reviews did not contain the word "cat" at all.
The appearance that Yelp is perpetuating offensive Asian-American stereotypes likely has to do with the way its search algorithm "learns."
A spokesperson for Yelp on Tuesday said the company’s searches rely on "real-world consumer user data and human behavior patterns. That means keywords found in Yelp’s user-submitted restaurant reviews, plus users’ previous searches and behaviors on the app can affect them.
"Included in the huge volume of search queries Yelp receives are some very rare, atypical ones that computer-generated models still try to match ... which is made more difficult by the rarity of this search occurrence," Yelp’s statement said. "To be clear, no human programmed these results or matches and we are taking prompt action to remove them from autocomplete and our other systems.
"Thank you for bringing this to our attention and allowing us to correct it."
Whether or not Yelp’s users are to blame for turning its search results racist, Ken Lee, the CEO of OCA, a national organization that advocates for the social, political and economic well-being of Asian Americans, called it an example of "algorithmic bias," social prejudices embedded in AIs created by humans that reflect cultural blind spots.
"Our small businesses must already combat racist, inflammatory reviews from users on Yelp. These biased search results for dog and cat meat vendors should not be an additional concern," Lee said. "The company has a social and corporate responsibility to their consumers and local businesses to keep their app and website clear of prejudice and misinformation. Algorithmic bias against communities of color continues to plague new technology and online platforms — this incident is another in a long line of incidents."
Human flaws in artificially-intelligent algorithms have become increasingly clear in the past few years. Algorithms, with their if-this-then-that logic, might seem objective, but often they "learn" to do their job from existing data — things people on the internet have already typed into a search box, for example.
Google had to make changes after the phrases "are Jews," "are women" or "Islamists" autocompleted in the search bar to suggest "evil." In 2015, Google executives said they were "appalled" when image recognition algorithms for Google Photos began automatically classifying black people as "gorillas." A computer algorithm used to assess criminal defendants in Florida falsely labeled black defendants with a higher likelihood to re-offend. A Nikon camera that recognized faces continually asked Asians if they were blinking.
YouTube, owned by Google, now pays humans to watch thousands of hours of video, after algorithms proved unable to prevent advertisers, such as PepsiCo and Dish Network, from having their ads shown alongside videos filled with hate speech and pedophilia. A Microsoft chatbot espoused enthusiasm for Nazis because people purposely tweeted Nazi stuff at it.
Safiya Umoja Noble, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, said the results could be reflecting the wider internet.
"We have many racist stereotypes in the United States that harm Asian Americans, and these kinds of derogatory notions are likely embedded in some of the reviews, but also circulating widely as key phrases in other online spaces outside of Yelp," she said.
Noble believes the first step would be to hire teams with training in issues of race, ethnicity, class and gender.
"We need a re-evaluation of the biased data that is used to train artificial intelligence to sort through the volumes of content," she said. "But ultimately, these are human decisions about veracity and trust in content, and we will likely never be able to trust fully commercialized sites that generate most of their income from advertising."
The cat meat stereotype is so embedded that sometimes Yelp users will favorably review a restaurant and still mention cat meat, as in the case of a review posted for a Chinese restaurant in St. Petersburg where the user gave five stars but wrote "I don’t suspect cat meat, that’s for sure."
Unfounded rumors that Asian restaurants in the U.S. would trick diners into eating something taboo have circulated for decades. In 1994, a hoax letter that claimed to prove a Korean food distributor was soliciting animal shelters led to stories published in mainstream American newspapers. Last year, a fake news story about cat meat being served at a Cape Coral Chinese restaurant circulated widely, despite local police repeatedly debunking it on social media.
The stereotype may partly be rooted in xenophobic assumptions about Asian American restaurants based on differing cultural norms in other countries. While far from a staple food, dog is sometimes served in both China and Korea — though the practice has been waning in recent years, along with changing attitudes about it within those countries.
Most U.S. states, including Florida, do not have statutes that explicitly make eating cats or dogs illegal, a spokesperson for the Florida State Attorney's office in Hillsborough County said.