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Could Search Rankings Rig the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election?

A new study suggests Google rankings could affect how people vote. BlendImages/GettyImages
A new study suggests Google rankings could affect how people vote. BlendImages/GettyImages

Imagine this scenario: On the eve of Election Day 2016, both major parties' candidates are running neck and neck, and the last few remaining undecided voters across the nation are struggling to make a choice. So they get online and search for information about each candidate, hoping to find some new information to help their choice.

But something funny happens. Candidate A's Google results actually have been subtly rigged, so that stories portraying him favorably are at the top. Since people tend to read the top hits and not get around to the rest, the undecideds see him in the most flattering light, without any criticism of his ideas or accusations of past scandals. The undecided voters don't realize it, but they're getting gamed. Since the Internet is a crucial source of political information these days, more of the fence-sitters end up voting for Candidate A than they would have, if there hadn't been any trickery. On election night, he's the winner.

That might sound to you like a particularly far-fetched plot line invented by a "House of Cards" screenwriter, but a recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that it might occur. The researchers, Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson of the Vista, California-based American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, staged multiple experiments involving more than 4,500 demographically diverse voters in the U.S. and India, in which some subjects were given biased search rankings to test the effect of the search engine manipulation effect (SEME) on their candidate preferences.

The result was scary. About 20 percent of voters who were shown skewed rankings ended up liking a different candidate. Listen to this HowStuffWorks podcast that goes into detail about the findings and their significance.

Epstein, the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, proposed an even more disturbing scenario in a subsequent Politico essay. Google, which continually tinkers in secrecy with its search algorithm, possesses the power to rig the 2016 election — and other elections around the globe, for that matter — if the technology giant would choose to do so. "There are three credible scenarios under which Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide as you read this," he writes.

In one scenario, Google executives might decide to favor one candidate — Epstein suggests that it might be Hillary Clinton, who hired a former Google exec to work in her campaign — and quietly adjusts the algorithm to make her search results seem overly positive. Alternatively, Epstein suggests, a rogue employee could manipulate the algorithm to insert bias — or it could give inadvertently slanted results due to a design flaw.

Since people get political information from an increasing variety of sources —cable TV and newspapers to satire on "The Daily Show," as well as tweets and Facebook posts by candidates — you might wonder why Google would have such a huge influence. "Most, if not all, of these other sources of influence are competitive," says Epstein via email. "Because Google has a virtual monopoly on search in most countries in the world, if Google favors one candidate, no one has a way of compensating for Google's influence.

"Again, remember that Google is proud of the fact that it always ranks one candidate — or one umbrella, or one drug, or one news story — over another in its search results," he adds. "No 'equal-time' rule is part of its programming [as it is for other media], and equal-time rules are important to protect the public. Because SEME is such a large effect — especially in some demographic groups — this gives Google the power to control the outcomes of close elections around the world with no one the wiser and no one able to counteract their influence."

Google's press office didn't answer an email request for comment. But in a response to Epstein's Politico article, Google senior vice-president and software engineer Amit Singhal said that Google has never re-ranked search results to manipulate users' opinions, or made any tweaks specific to elections or candidates — and doesn't ever intend to do so. "From the beginning, our approach to search has been to provide the most relevant answers and results to our users," he wrote. "It would undermine people's trust in our results, and our company, if we were to change course.

Also skeptical are Kaiser Fung, author of the 2013 book "Numbersense: How to Use Big Data to Your Advantage," and his colleague Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, who co-wrote a stinging Daily Beast critique of Epstein's and Robertson's work. "Could Google executives or employees swing an election? All things are possible," they say in a joint email. "But, if you want to worry about this sort of thing, I'd be more worried about the much more obvious and direct effect of rich people and rich companies donating tons of money to political campaigns."

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