Election season ads and constant media commentary can seem overwhelming, but at least modern voters have the ability to do some research on their own with the help of unbiased search engines. Or do they? Of course, typing queries into popular search engines gives a list of results. But a new study implies that the order in which those results are listed could be more important than previously thought.
In the study, psychologist Robert Epstein and colleagues ran several experiments using a fake search engine they called "Kadoodle." They asked more than 2,000 American volunteers to use Kadoodle to help them decide how they would vote in an election. To reduce bias, they chose candidates from the 2010 election for the prime minister of Australia, reports David Shultz for Science. Every participant who searched saw the same 30 pages, but in some groups, a single candidate dominated the top results. The researchers also ran a similar test with more than 2,000 actual undecided voters from India prior to the 2014 national election, reports Francie Diep for Pacific Standard.
Researchers found that the order in which search results were presented could sway undecided voters by 20 percent or more. Shultz explains that while that might not seem like much, elections are often won by tight margins. Given a situation in which 80 percent of voters have Internet access and 10 percent are undecided, search engine results could push 25 percent of them to vote for the top-ranked candidate. That much sway could easily determine a close election.
“What we’re talking about here is a means of mind control on a massive scale that there is no precedent for in human history," Epstein says. The researchers published their findings in Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences.
Wired’s Adam Rogers points out that the danger is less about search engine executives manipulating the public and more about the sheer size of the public that relies on search engines. The study implies that even the unintentional elevation of one result over another could have large effects given a large voting public.
A Google spokesperson assured Rogers that the search engine giant has an interest in delivering only unbiased results (after all, its public reputation relies on its perceived trustworthiness). But scientists and commentators worry that good intentions may not be enough to counterbalance search engines’ political impact.
Technology is certainly changing the way people get information — by providing more access, for example — as well as the mechanics of how people vote. But Epstein worries that "the search engine manipulation effect" could mean that soon, all kinds of knowledge, attitudes and beliefs will get boosts from algorithms instead of their actual merits. Untangling whether and when that is true is sure to be a challenge.