If online search rankings can influence our buying habits, why not our voting habits? That question led research psychologist and former editor of Psychology Today Robert Epstein to co-write a study asserting that manipulating search-engine results could be a surefire and undetectable way to manipulate election results.
The study’s participants, selected to resemble the US voting population, viewed the results for two candidates on a mock search engine called Kadoodle. By front-loading Kadoodle’s results with articles favoring one of the candidates, Epstein shifted enough of his participants’ voter preferences toward the favored candidate to simulate the swing of a close election. But here’s the kicker: in one round of the study, Epstein configured Kadoodle so that it hid the manipulation from 100 percent of the participants.
The study, titled “Democracy at Risk” and slated for presentation at this year’s meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests a scenario in which insiders at a dominant search engine (at the moment, Google) could, if they chose, covertly pick members of Congress and even the president. What’s more, says Epstein, it is perfectly legal for a search engine to behave this way.
Epstein, who had a public quarrel with Google last year over security warnings on his website triggered by a hacker, is quick to point out that he is not claiming that Google or any other search engine has fixed an election—merely that it is possible to do so.
Michael Fischer, a professor of computer science at Yale, agrees that there is cause for concern. “To the extent that somebody wants to build a politically biased search engine, they are certainly capable of doing that,” Fischer says. “We don’t have any way of knowing what biases, if any, the search engines we currently use have, and this is a concern not just for elections, but for all areas of our democracy.”
After reviewing a summary of the study sent by The Nation, a Google spokesperson repeated verbatim an earlier statement the company had made on this topic: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.” In other words, not a denial that Google has the power to surreptitiously alter voter preferences but an implication that it would never use it. As Google executive chair Eric Schmidt famously said moments before implying that his company could predict the stock market, “There are many, many things that Google could do, that we chose not to do.”
Epstein believes that the mere existence of the power to fix election outcomes, wielded or not, is a threat to democracy, and he asserts that search engines should be regulated accordingly. But regulatory analogies for a many-armed, ever-shifting company like Google are tough to pin down. For those who see search results as a mere passive relaying of information, like a library index or a phone book, there is precedent for regulation. In the past, phone books—with a monopoly on the flow of certain information to the public—were prevented from not listing businesses even when paid to do so. In the 1990s, similar reasoning led to the “must carry” rule, which required cable companies to carry certain channels to communities where they were the only providers of those channels.