Many of us worry that companies with an abundance of cash and a willingness to use it can unfairly influence elections and politicians. Google — or do we call it Alphabet these days — has demonstrated a willingness to throw around big bucks to achieve its goals, but two researchers have shown how the Internet giant poses an even greater threat through its search engine.
Writing in Politico Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, explains how he and co-researcher Ronald E. Robertson, have demonstrated that search results can easily shift voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more.
“Given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power, right now, to flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide,” writes Epstein. “In the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9 percent—well within Google’s control.”
The cause is what Epstein calls the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME). His comprehensive study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) explains it in detail.
In a nutshell, people only look at the top few results in search results. If those results are favorable to a particular candidate significant numbers of undecided voters will back him or her. It’s like the Fox News effect: people who rely ion Fox for their news and information tend to take more “conservative” positions.
Epstein postulates three ways Google could swing an election. First, executives could decide who they thought was best for the country — and undoubtedly best for Google — and then deliberately manipulate search results accordingly. Epstein thinks that the least plausible scenario, by the way.
Second, a rogue employee could on his or her own for whatever reason decide to manipulate search results. That’s not so far fetched. A single employee, Marius Milner, was blamed for the Wi-Spy scandal when Google’s Street View cars sucked up data from private Wi-Fi connections around the world. He still works for Google.
The third, and perhaps most troublesome possibility, is the Algorithm Scenraio. As Epstein puts it:
Under this scenario, all of Google’s employees are innocent little lambs, but the software is evil. Google’s search algorithm is pushing one candidate to the top of rankings because of what the company coyly dismisses as “organic” search activity by users; it’s harmless, you see, because it’s all natural. Under this scenario, a computer program is picking our elected officials.
To put this another way, our research suggests that no matter how innocent or disinterested Google’s employees may be, Google’s search algorithm, propelled by user activity, has been determining the outcomes of close elections worldwide for years, with increasing impact every year because of increasing Internet penetration.
Epstein says that deliberately mixing up search results or displaying various alerts can suppress SEME to some extent, but doubts Google would do that. I’m not sure what to about it — Epstein proposes government regulation — but this much is clear: Google wields its power over our lives in ways we haven’t adequately explored and considered.