Can Google steal elections? Researchers say yes (in theory)

Google says its search algorithmns are designed to meet users’ needs, not influence elections.
Google says its search algorithmns are designed to meet users’ needs, not influence elections.

When President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he’ll mention an array of programs and people.

And all across America, fingers will start flying on computer keyboards as millions of curious viewers go to Google or Bing or Yahoo in search of more detail on those programs and people.

It’s the way we make sense of the world around us in the Internet age. Everything’s on the web; just look it up and you’ll be enlightened, right?

Not necessarily, say the authors of a 2015 study into the ways search engines can influence voter behavior, and perhaps even the outcomes of elections. Depending on how the search engine results are displayed, or if they are manipulated, you could end up misguided rather than enlightened.

Researchers Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson based their study on five controlled experiments involving more than 4,500 undecided voters. They asked subjects for their opinions and voting preferences before and after letting them conduct research on mock search engines they’d created.

Some subjects were shown search results biased in favor of one candidate, while others were shown results biased toward neither candidate.

They found that biased search rankings could shift voting preferences among undecided voters by 20 percent or more, and that the bias can be masked so people don’t even know they’re being manipulated.

The authors note that people tend to put the most weight on web links landing at the top of the first page of results – even when lower-ranked results dovetail more closely with their search. This despite the fact that the average person has no earthly idea how Google and other search firms decide which results appear first. We just trust them to meet our needs and to do so fairly.

As the authors rightly note, this has huge potential consequences. We’ve heard of the studies showing the “Fox effect” – how Fox News boosts conservative votes when it moves into a new market. But Epstein and Robertson say the impact of biased search engine rankings “is potentially much greater than the influence of traditional media sources, where the parties compete in an open marketplace for voter allegiance.”

That’s because if Google goosed its search results to favor Hillary Clinton, how would voters even know it happened? And how could they counter that bias if they didn’t even know they were being manipulated? Perhaps even Google’s executives wouldn’t know it, if rogue programmers were able to hide their digital tracks.

Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, even contends that Google could rig the United States’ 2016 presidential election by tilting search results for or against a candidate. He believes Google could “flip upwards of 25 percent of national elections worldwide,” in fact.

None of this is to say Google and other search engines don’t play a valuable role in educating people about the world around them. Clearly, they do. Just ask the phone book companies whose directories go straight to the recycle bin at my house and many others.

Still, we must confront the fact that we’re showering Internet search corporations with the kind of blind faith we increasingly deny other social and political institutions – churches, political parties, government.

I don’t think the solution is slapping federal regulations on search firms. But as election season swings into high gear, we all ought to take greater care that we aren’t relying on any one search engine, or results page, or even type of media, to formulate our voting positions.

Google’s internal code of conduct long included the mantra: “Don’t Be Evil.” The new Alphabet holding company that now oversees the search giant dropped that wording from its code last year.

If Epstein is right, we’d better all pray the company’s living by it anyway. Eric Frazier