A new report from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology proves how a search engine can shift the opinions of undecided voters by up to 80%.
The study, led by Dr. Robert Epstein, exposed participants to either positive or negative search suggestions about unfamiliar candidates. The voting preference of participants who saw only positive search suggestions shifted about 35% towards that candidate, while preferences for those who viewed only negative suggestions shifted away from that candidate by over 40%.
Using this method of manipulation, concludes Epstein, a search engine could transform a 50/50 idealogical split into a 90/10 split. And there’s no paper trail.
This is exactly what Google did in 2016 when it pointed users towards positive information on Hillary and negative information on Trump and Sanders (read my article about that here).
Based on Epstein’s work, search results between May and November 2016 were, on average, biased in favor of Hillary Clinton. “This bias could not be accounted for by the bias in the search terms themselves,” notes Epstein. “We also found different levels of bias in different search engines, as well as evidence of demographically-targeted bias. We don’t know what caused these patterns…but no matter what the cause or causes, given the power of search rankings to shift votes and opinions without people’s awareness, they are a matter for concern.
Epstein’s research also supports the claim that Google manipulates its search results to benefit its own products and services. For example, type “G” into the search bar and you will see options like “Google,” “Gmail,” and “Google Docs.” The same pattern occurs with major advertisers for Google like Amazon, Target, Home Depot, and Zillow.
Two weeks ago, antitrust officials in Europe hit Google with a $2.7 billion fine for prioritizing its own services.
“The fact is, at the moment, whether you know it or not, democracy is an illusion and human freedom has been greatly constrained in ways that I guarantee you’re not even aware of but that I study every day,” said Epstein at a town hall meeting in New Orleans earlier this month. “And the point is we…no matter what our political positions, we’re all in danger, very much in danger.”
Google has no incentive to change its behavior because it is only accountable to its shareholders, continued Epstein. “Eventually, authorities will almost certainly have to step in, just as they did when credit bureaus were regulated in 1970.”
Author’s Note: Epstein’s work shows why we desperately need lawmakers to pass a regulation that would force tech companies to keep search engine results unbiased.