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Top Psychology Expert Warns That Google Could Manipulate Elections

Top Psychology Expert Warns That Google Could Manipulate Elections

by Giulio PriscoAugust 21, 2015

Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, warns that Google could manipulate political elections worldwide. For example, the Internet giant could decide the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in the US by manipulating search results.

Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more – up to 80 percent in some demographic groups – with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated,” Epstein writes on Politico.

Our new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters.

The Search Engine Manipulation Effect Might Determine an Election Outcome

Google searchOf course there is nothing new in the fact that the media are able to tweak elections results. But Google has arguably achieved unprecedented influence in the voters’ choices. The core idea is simple: today, more and more people aren’t dependent on a single news source but read news and opinions horizontally across all media, and Google search is the starting point.

Since most people stick to the top of the first page of search results, and in view of the fact that that many elections are won by small margins, tweaking the order of Google search results in favor of – or against – a position or a candidate could decide the outcome of an election.

“Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning,” is the comment of a Google spokesperson reported by The Washington Post. “It would undermine people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”

Epstein’s research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) with the title “The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections.”

The research paper, which is freely accessible online, presents evidence from five experiments in two countries suggesting the power and robustness of the search engine manipulation effect. Knowing the proportion of undecided voters in a population who have Internet access, along with the proportion of those voters who can be influenced using SEME, allows one to calculate the win margin below which SEME might be able to determine an election outcome.

Epstein explores three scenarios whereby Google could shape or even decide the US election next year. In the first, Google’s executives decide which candidate is best and choose the next President. In the second, the choice is made by a rogue Google employee with the authority or ability to tweak search results, without Google even knowing.

And in the third scenario, it’s the search algorithm itself that makes the choice. Epstein notes that Google’s search results ranking algorithm is secret, and Google acknowledges adjusting the algorithm all the time based on many parameters including search keywords and users’ behavior, so an invisible collective hand could influence the algorithms and determine the election result.

Images from Pixabay.

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  • It’s not manipulation if it’s not done with that intent. Influencing != manipulation. I agree that it is a concern, but “manipulation” is a bit hyperbolic, at least in the case of scenario 3. Scenarios 1 & 2 are, of course, an example of actual manipulation on the part of Google employees. Then again, Super PACs and corporate donations are also examples of active manipulation on the part of individuals/corporations, and that apparently, is perfectly fine with many people. I think we should be far more wary and concerned about those in U.S. politics than Google’s search rankings.

    • Rod

      How you guarantee that the google did not in intentional way? If i know well a lot of Google directors are Democrats and a lot of ex-googlers work for obama