New research shows that Google’s search engine is determining the outcomes of elections around the world
September 6, 2015 12:00 AM
By Robert Epstein
We all love Google. Let’s get that out of the way. How can you dislike a company that has such a cool name and that gives away everything for free?
On the other hand, as my wary uncle used to say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Those apparently free services — Wallet, Drive, Maps, the search engine and so on — are just clever devices the company uses to collect information about us, which it then sells to advertisers. Nearly 100 percent of Google’s revenue comes from advertising. Google Inc. is really just another big advertising company, but with a new and fundamentally deceptive business model.
Research I have conducted in recent years with Ronald E. Robertson, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has uncovered a particularly troubling side of Google’s operations. Randomized, controlled experiments we have conducted with more than 4,500 people in two countries show that Google’s search results are determining the winners of close elections around the world.
When one candidate is ranked higher in search rankings, our research shows that this causes undecided voters to shift their votes toward that candidate. Why? Because, like rats in a Skinner box, we have all been conditioned to trust Google search rankings — specifically, to believe two things: 1) Google search results are awesome, true and infallible, and 2) the higher something is ranked, the better it is.
That’s why 50 percent of all clicks go to the top two search results and why more than 90 percent of clicks go to that precious first page of results. Extensive research on consumer behavior has shown how powerful this trust has become, which is why companies are now spending billions of dollars each year trying to trick Google’s search engine into pushing their products up another notch or two in the rankings.
This trickery is called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, and candidates are all over it, too. It involves salting Internet postings on websites and social media with key words and phrases in key places to drive them toward the top of Google search results. So, for instance, if the Jeb Bush campaign out-optimizes the Donald Trump campaign on the subject of immigration, someone searching for Mr. Trump’s position on immigration would find the first page of results littered with Mr. Bush’s criticisms of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies instead of Mr. Trump’s explanation of his views.
Fair enough. SEO is competitive, just as are competing campaign billboards and TV ads. The problem is that for all practical purposes there is only one search engine. More than 75 percent of online searches in the United States are conducted on Google, and in most other countries the figure runs around 90 percent. That means that, if Google’s CEO, a rogue employee or simply Google’s algorithm favor one candidate over another, there is no way to counteract that influence. It would be as if Fox News were the only TV channel in the country.
Unfortunately, the enormous public trust in Google search results, applied to election-related material, can have a devastating effect on voting. Our experiments show that shifting the rankings of results can easily increase the proportion of people who support one candidate by 20 percent or more — up to 80 percent in some demographic groups — a phenomenon we call the Search Engine Manipulation Effect, or SEME.
Even more disturbing, virtually no one who is shown search results biased toward one candidate has any idea he or she is being manipulated. After all, search rankings are supposed to be biased, right? They’re supposed to put “better” results above inferior results. To the extent that we are on the lookout for bias in everyday life, we shut down our bias detectors when we are using Google’s search engine. We want the search results to be biased — that is, to tell us, lazy sheep that we are, what’s best.
Because many elections are won by small margins, our research suggests that Google’s search engine is determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the world’s national elections. As Internet penetration continues to increase, with more and more people getting their information about candidates online, that proportion will only increase.
Are Google officials concerned about this? Are they looking for ways to try to prevent or minimize SEME? Are they trying to figure out how to implement “equal time” rules in search rankings, akin to the rules that have protected the integrity of U.S. elections on radio and television channels?
Not at all. In public statements, Google simply dismisses the new research and makes vague statements that convey the same tired message: Trust us, we’re cool.
But should we? After all, Google could throw its search-engine support to a particular candidate. In the 2012 presidential election, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to Barack Obama and only $37,000 to Mitt Romney. According to The Wall Street Journal, on election night, Google CEO Eric Schmidt “was personally overseeing a voter-turnout system for Mr. Obama.” In addition, a number of former Google honchos work in the Obama administration.
Of course this doesn’t mean Google executives have ever deliberately skewed search rankings to serve their political preferences. We can’t know for sure unless a whistleblower turns up or the FBI breaks down the doors, but Google is facing multi-billion-dollar fines in the European Union and India for biased search rankings — that is, for deliberately putting its own products and services ahead of those of other companies. An internal 2012 report by the Federal Trade Commission came to a similar conclusion, noting that “Google has unlawfully maintained its monopoly over general search … by scraping [sic] content from rival vertical websites in order to improve its own product offerings.”
Here’s the kicker, though. The Search Engine Manipulation Effect is extremely powerful and, even without explicit meddling by Google employees, Google’s search algorithm is already influencing elections just by doing what it’s programmed to do. And that algorithm, adjusted some 600 times a year, Google says, is a proprietary secret.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 21st century: In close elections, many of our elected officials are being picked by computer code.
Robert Epstein is senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine.
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