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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Could Google decide the result of close elections?

There is an interesting article on the BBC at the moment which reports the views of Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, who suggest that Google has within its power, whether intentionally or not, to give a winning push to a political candidate in a close election.

The article says that Mr. Epstein concedes that there is no evidence that Google is currently tampering in the electoral process, but thanks to how it ranks search results the company can have a meaningful influence on how an increasingly large portion of the electorate gets its news and information about politics and politicians:

He writes in US News and World Report:

With its virtual monopoly on search, Google has the power to flip the outcomes of close elections easily - and without anyone knowing. Over time, they could change the face of parliaments and congresses worldwide to suit their business needs - keeping regulators at bay, getting favourable tax deals and so on. And because their business is unregulated in most countries at this point, flipping elections in this way would be legal.

Epstein calls this the "search engine manipulation effect". He and a team of researchers set out to show how Google results could influence public opinion. By feeding study participants in San Diego, California, customised search results on candidates in the 2010 prime minster race in Australia, they were able to switch the subjects' initial preferences toward targeted politicians.

He writes:

Search rankings have this powerful effect on votes for the same reason that they have one on consumer behaviour: the higher the ranking, the more people believe and trust the content, mistakenly assuming that some impartial and omniscient genie has carefully evaluated each Web page and put the best ones first. (Not so.)

Mr. Epstein had a go at fising his own election so as to prove the point. He intervened in India's recent presidential election:

"That's right, we deliberately manipulated the voting preferences of more than 2,000 real voters in the largest democratic election in the history of the world," he writes, "easily pushing the preferences of undecided voters by more than 12% in any direction we chose - double that amount in some demographic groups."

He estimates that this kind of tampering could be decisive in any election within a 2.9% margin.

It is an interesting theory, though he concedes that Google never intentionally tries to influence elections. The BBC conclude by noting that Epstein has a bone to pick with Google dating back to January 2012 when the search site labelled his home page as a possible hacker attack page when it came up in its search results.
And how about Facebook? Post about the Liberal Democrats and the "you may also like" suggestions usually list derogatory comments about the party.

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