By Gerard Freda
In August 2015, notable social psychologist Robert Epstein published three studies highlighting the search engine manipulation effect (SEME) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The series of studies examined how search engines can manipulate voters. In one study, Epstein and his team showed participants’ biased search results. They found that 99.5 percent of people were unaware that the search results that they were shown were altered. These results were based off of the 2014 election of the Lok Sabha, the lower-house of the Indian Parliament.
Based on these results, Epstein used the “vote manipulation power” (VMP), a measurement that reflects the extent to which alterations in search engine results influence voting behavior, to show how much search engines can manipulate voters. The results showed that the SEME could increase a person’s likelihood to vote for a candidate by 13 percent for people who are not familiar with the candidates. Even people who were familiar with the candidates showed a 10 percent VMP. The research also distinguished people labeled as “Internet-fluent,” people who are well-versed in how to use the Internet, and showed that 91.4 percent of this group displayed no awareness of search engine manipulation. The studies showed across the board that most people were unaware of the presence of biased search engine results.
These results only matter if you happen to have a passing interest in democracy. The research on SEME concluded that, if spread out across a population, the SEME could shift undecided voters by 25 percent or more for or against a candidate. The study conservatively estimated that the SEME could account for a shift in 2 percent of the total popular vote for a given election. According to the 2012 exit polls, roughly 10 percent of U.S. voters were undecided up until the final days of the election.
Does Google have the ability to implement the SEME? Globally, with over 5 billion searches a day and almost 2 trillion a year, according to statisticbrain.com, a statistic gathering website, Google is the world’s largest search engine, according to Net Marketshare, an Internet data collecting Website. With its Analytics, Maps, Adsense and YouTube, Google has the ability to provide the world with a treasure trove of data. In fact, in capitalistic fashion, its ability to serve the world was evident when the company surpassed Apple as the most valuable company in the world, according to a CNBC article from Tuesday, Feb. 2.
As a society, we are so dependent on Google that it has become second nature to our technologically-aided development of thought. Our dependence is not learned through human language, but from computer language.
If we know something, we don’t Google it. If we don’t know it, we Google it. It has become habitual. We all do little things without knowing all the time. Micro-actions like this can be harmless, but when applied to a search engine and aggregated together, they form a social dependence and leave the door wide open to search engine manipulation. This combination has toxic potential, especially when Google has a covert political agenda.
During the 2012 election, search engine manipulation was used on a very basic level. The Obama campaign used a tool called “Optimizer,” which matched targeted voters to data about what television programs those voters tended to watch. The Obama campaign could then buy advertising time during programs on smaller cable channels such as TV Land, whose advertising rates were cheaper according to a New York Times article from Nov. 12, 2012.
What is even odder is that one day after the biggest primary election-day of this year — Tuesday, March 1, also known as Super Tuesday — when 13 states voted in the Republican primary, Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt, a self-admitting politically-partisan man, was hired by the Pentagon as the head of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board. This was done in common private-sector public-sector revolving door fashion according to a CNN Money article from Wednesday, March 2. Only this time, the politically-partisan chairman of the most powerful and wealthiest corporation in the world is on both sides of the door at the same time, armed with the empirically-proven ability to manipulate an election.
As musican Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a changin.” No democracy is ever a perfect reflection of the people’s preferences, as Kenneth Arrow has proven with his Impossibility Theorem.
Democracy and elections are always going to be manipulated to fit the self interests of the times. Regardless of the extent of corporate influence, power, potential, freedom or whatever positive or negative word you may call it, for the first time in humanity, an entity, such as a political campaign, has the power through the SEME to directly affect the outcome of an election by “tailoring your search results to your needs.” As Epstein concluded, “unregulated election-related search rankings could pose a significant threat to the democratic system of government.” For the first time in the electoral history of the United States, an entity, Google, has found the Golden Ticket to U.S. elections.
Students share opinions around campus
Does Google have political sway?
“You can look up any information if you do your research… (Google) can definitely help (sway the results).”
“(Google) definitely plays a significant role… I don’t think that it’s going to be the primary (indicator) to decide the election.”