A recent paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and Its Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections” imparted this stunning revelation:
The results of these experiments demonstrate that biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and search ranking bias can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation.
Could this affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential race? Some tech experts think so.
According to Google search trends, Donald Trump is the most searched presidential candidate, leading in 48 of 50 states (Scott Walker currently leads in Wisconsin, while Bernie Sanders ranks at the top of the list in Vermont).
Robert Epstein, who directed the PNAS study, recently wrote a piece at Politico called “How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election.” He said:
Could this activity push [Trump] higher in search rankings, and could higher rankings in turn bring him more support? Most definitely, depending, that is, on how Google employees choose to adjust numeric weightings in the search algorithm. Google acknowledges adjusting the algorithm 600 times a year, but the process is secret; so what effect Mr. Trump’s success will have on how he shows up in Google searches is presumably out of his hands.
Tech expert Steve Gibson discussed this in his August 25 Security Now! podcast:
There has been discussion before about one of…sort of the self-fulfilling problems or aspects of Google searches is that, since Google comes to know who we are, Google biases the results we see based on what Google has determined are our interests. And so, it can be that an individual who is searching for things gets results that are more pertinent to them, but sort of — I don’t want to say the “dark side” — but the questionable side of that is what effect that actually has on [those individuals] moving forward.
In other words, the more people search for information on Donald Trump, the more Google feeds them Donald Trump. And if Trump continues to dominate Google search trends, he’ll also rise to the top of the pack when voters search for terms like “2016 election,” “Republican candidates,” or “presidential candidates,” which could give him an advantage over other candidates. (Or that’s how it would work, in theory, in a completely free search engine market.)
But search engines rely on human designers, who also play a role by creating the algorithms that determine how pages are ranked.
Gibson said we depend on the neutrality of results we get from Internet searches. “I think Google has — we’ve always said this. Google has a huge responsibility.”
Leo Laporte, Gibson’s co-host added, “Absent good competition, there’s nothing to keep them honest.”
The PNAS study found that undecided voters were more likely to respond favorably to candidates who showed up at the top of search engine results:
Because search rankings biased toward one candidate can apparently sway the voting preferences of undecided voters without their awareness and, at least under some circumstances, without any possible competition from opposing candidates, SEME appears to be an especially powerful tool for manipulating elections.
Researchers concluded that “although voters are subjected to a wide variety of influences during political campaigns, we believe that the manipulation of search rankings might exert a disproportionately large influence over voters.”
They cited several reasons for this potential influence:
- The search ranking process could interact with voter preferences to create a “digital bandwagon effect” that magnifies the effects of even minor search ranking tweaks by the search engine company.
- Search ranking manipulations are difficult to detect, and it’s difficult for individuals to resist influences they are unable to see. This is obviously more troublesome in the context of political campaigns than it is for, say, search rankings for funny cat videos.
- In most campaigns, candidates have (more or less) equal access to voters. Search engines, with little or no competition, make no such guarantees. If a company decided to manipulate rankings to help a particular candidate, others would have no way to fight back. On the other hand, if the results were left completely in the hands of the market, an algorithm (created by a human) might determine the outcome of a close election. (Translation: It’s impossible to leave it entirely in the hands of the market.)
Researchers warned that because voters are increasingly turning to the Internet for information about candidates and elections, “unregulated election-related search rankings could pose a significant threat to the democratic system of government.”
Epstein suggested in his piece at Politico that, based on his research at PNAS, Americans ought to be very concerned about the integrity of our elections:
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. 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.
Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to donate money to a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins. The technology guarantees the win, and the donation guarantees allegiance, which Google has certainly tapped in recent years with the Obama administration.
Think about that the next time you head over to Google to search for information about whether or not Donald Trump’s hair is real.