Google’s search algorithms could alter Presidential elections


Want to know who will win the 2016 US Presidential election? You might be able to find out simply by running a Google search on each candidate’s name, according to a new research by experts at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology.

The phenomenon is known as “search engine manipulation effect” (SEME), and authors Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson suggest that biased results from websites like Google or Yahoo could shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by more than 20 percent.

Their findings, which have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are the result of five experiments conducted in two different countries. They found that for some key demographics, the shift can be much higher (as much as 80 percent), and that these rankings can be hidden to keep voters from knowing that they are being manipulated.

By knowing the proportion of undecided voters with access to the Web, and the percentage of voters susceptible to SEMS influence, Epstein and Robertson argue that it is possible to determine the win margin below which this phenomenon could determine the result of an election. The outcome of a close election could be changed by search algorithms.

Findings based on five different international experiments

According to Wired, Epstein and Robertson combined the results of five different double-blind, randomized controlled experiments involving more than 4,500 voters. They examined the influence of positive and negative search-engine results on undecided voters in the 2010 election to decide the prime minister of Australia and India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

For example, in the Austrian election experiment, one group was first exposed to positive articles about one candidate, while another group saw positive articles about that person’s opponent and a third saw a random assortment of results. As it turns out, people overwhelmingly expressed the desire to vote for the candidate they saw positive results for (by a nearly 49 percent margin).

That effect remained even when a single negative story was later inserted into the results shown to the voters, and even appeared to strengthen in some situations, as it made the results appear to be more neutral and trustworthy. Likewise, during last year’s elections in India, they found a “vote manipulation power” (VMP) rating of 24 percent.

Even a small margin of influence could have a tremendous impact on an election, they explained. The Australian election came down to a margin of less than one percent, and half of all American presidential elections have been decided by eight percent or less. Even if SEME had an impact of one of two percent, it could be influential in an election, experts explained to Wired.

“We estimate, based on win margins in national elections around the world that Google could determine the outcome of upwards of 25 percent of all national elections,” Epstein told the site, adding that the phenomenon is not necessarily limited to the political arena. “You can push knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior among people who are vulnerable any way you want using search rankings.”

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