Could Search Engines Affect Election Outcomes?

The 2016 United States presidential election is approaching fast and no matter what side you’re on, you’ll be shocked to learn how much potential search engines have to affect the outcomes of elections. With the vast number of countries that conduct elections each year, the idea that a powerful search engine could sway enough voters to make history is exciting to some and frightening to many.

The Search Engine Manipulation Effect

Companies create huge advertising and SEO budgets to simply show up at the top of search results, because where something ranks in a list shapes if people even see the result, let alone click on it. In the past several years, researchers have conducted studies to examine whether search engine result rankings go beyond clicks and actually affect people’s opinions.

In fact, several studies suggest that search results and rankings don’t just influence what we click on, but how we feel about the subject. The phenomenon goes by the name the “Search Engine Manipulation Effect,” or SEME. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published five studies, by Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson, which discovered and examined SEME. The results are almost Orwellian, especially because you can’t detect SEME when it’s happening to you.

Randomized Experiments With Unsettling Findings

Epstein and Robertson’s five experiments used methodology which included information from real elections and actual web pages, which they ordered in rigged search results for their groups of participants. They started out with a real Australian election but used groups of people in the U.S. unfamiliar with the candidates. The two researchers expected some bias based on search results, but not a 48.4 percent increase in preference for whichever candidate appeared at the top of their search results.

When Epstein and Robertson used an occurring election, India’s 2014 election, and participants who already knew about the candidates and would be voting soon, the results correlated with previous experiments: they could shift an average of 20 percent of people’s opinions, despite those people already having preferences and biases.

Do You Trust Your Search Results?

One more chilling fact resulted from these experiments: people often don’t know they’re being manipulated when they face biased search results. When search results include even one disparate page in a list of results that seem to underscore a certain opinion, many people don’t notice that they’re facing any sort of manipulation.

The demographics most likely to feel the effects of SEME include lots of undecided voters. The experiments tampered with search results and proved how effective the strategy was. What the studies didn’t do was investigate if the search results we all see every day contain any specific manipulation or bias.

The current research suggests a chilling potential for mass manipulation. It also suggests possibilities for guarding search results and people overall against SEME. The question remains: are a few major search companies to be trusted with such possible power? Next time you use a search engine, pay attention to how you feel about the first few results that pop up on your page.

Image via Flickr by comprock