Could Google’s Search Algorithm Affect the Election of the Next US President?

Image credit: Nyshita talluri via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Nyshita talluri via Wikimedia Commons

Google is undoubtedly a powerful company and its search engine is the undisputed leader not just among search engines but among the many prominent forces on the Internet. Until now, is still the king of web traffic and is essentially the basis for search engine optimization efforts. When Google announces updates or changes, the SEO and web marketing communities are shaken. However, Google’s influence appears to go beyond the web as one study released last week found that Google’s search algorithm may decide the results of the upcoming US presidential elections.

Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME)

The paper was published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, entitled “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and Its Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections.” The authors of the paper are Robert Epstein, a psychologist of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and Ronald E. Robertson, Associate Director of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology.

The paper presents what can be considered as evidences of the ability of biased search rankings to affect the preferences of undecided voters. It highlights the “power and robustness of the search engine manipulation effect (SEME).” There are three main points being presented on the paper. These are as follows:

  • The ability to biased search rankings to shift the choices of voters who are yet to make up their minds by 20% or more
  • The “shift” can be higher in certain demographic categories
  • The manipulative rankings on Google search engine results can be masked so that web users show no awareness of the manipulation

According to the paper, it is possible to calculate the win margin under which the search engine manipulation effect might have an influence in an election outcome by knowing the number of undecided voters in a population who have access to the Internet and the number of these voters who can be influenced through SEME.

In an interview with Wired, Epstein said that based on win margins in national elections worldwide, Google’s search engine could shape the results of more than 25% of all national elections. This means that the way Google presents the information about the candidates being searched by voters can affect their votes. Google’s search algorithm can create a huge impact on the election of the next president of the United States or other countries where voters turn to the Internet for more information about their candidates.

Image credit: Google, Inc.

Image credit: Google, Inc.

The Study, Experiments

Initially, Epstein and Robertson did controlled simulations of the way Google search results affect voters. Mock voters (the study subjects) were granted access to information about the prime minister elections in Australia in 2010 and 2008, and then allowed to look for information about the candidates using a simulated search engine. This simulated search engine showed positive articles about one candidate to one group of mock voters, positive articles about another candidate to another set of mock voters, and random results to another group of mock voters (the control group).

The study revealed that voters tend to vote, by more than 48%, for a candidate when they find positive information about the candidate on top of search engine results. This is what Epstein coins as the “vote manipulation power” (VMP) of Google. Accordingly, the voting tendency even increased when one of the positive stories on the first search engine results page was replaced by something negative. Apparently, the presence of a negative story created a sense of credibility as the results appeared more neutral so voters likely considered them trustworthy.

Real Life SEME Manifestations

To test the validity of the results of the studies or experiments in the real world, Epstein and Robertson flew to India for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It’s an election that involves around 800 million voters (although the turnout was only around 430 million). The team chose 2,150 undecided voters to be subjected to the same experiment. To their surprise, they recorded even higher voter tendency percentages.

Overall, they measured VMP was at around 24%. In some parts, VMP even went as high as 72%. These results are certainly significant especially when taking into account that most elections, particularly in presidential races in the United States, have win factors of only around 8%. The 17% to 24% figures reported on the paper are extremely significant. According to

Harvard Business School computational social scientist Brian Keegan, 4% to 8% “would get any campaign manager excited” especially considering the fact that most electoral races only take a swing of around 3% to 4%.

Opposing View

Civis Analytics data scientist David Shor, however, is not convinced that politicians will be able search engine optimize their way to victory. For him, doing so would take a lot of financial expenditure so using the old way of getting the media on your side is the more favorable strategy. He does not contest the existence of vote manipulation power, though.

Google’s Power to Steal the Election

Essentially, the research paper wants people to realize that Google has the power to determine the outcomes of the next elections without people realizing it. The way search engine results are presented could be some subliminal form of influencing voters. However, the paper is not alleging that Google will, is, or has been influencing voters by purposely setting the search algorithm to favor certain politicians.

Image credit: Icington Group via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Icington Group via Wikimedia Commons

We now live in a world that is largely ruled by technology. The Internet and mobile devices, in particular, have changed the ways we find and access information, communicate, and express opinions. Whether or not Google’s search algorithms can indeed influence the results of the upcoming United States Elections, what’s important is that we are aware of how technology is affecting our lives and choices. How we cope or react is entirely up to us.