Rigging an Election: Search Engine Manipulation Effect

  • Finley Heinzen ’23

We search the internet every day. It’s a process that has become so integrated in our lives, many of us probably can’t imagine what we’d do without it. On top of that, the majority of us use Google to search up whatever we need to, but we don’t stop to think about how that affects our lives. For instance, according to qrius.com, Google can track your location, even if you turn off the location tracking services. After all, it is all just part of how they run their business, but should we be worried about that?

Throughout the past couple of years, it has become evident that Google has the ability to damage democracies around the world, including the United States. Robert Epstein and his team of researchers have concluded that Google is capable of widely manipulating the results of elections using a process called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME). This process can change search results starting from the first letter you type in to be able to “shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more — up to 80 percent in some demographic groups.” It can change a 50/50 split to a 90/10 split. One test of SEME took place in India with over 2,000 participants where they found there were able to push the preferences of undecided voters by more than 12%, and even more than 50% in some cases. Additionally, throughout the five tests they held with over 4,000 participants, they found that any election could be flipped, if the projected margin between candidates is under 2.9%. This may sound like a small number, but 1?4 of all elections worldwide are won with margins under 3%.

A good way of putting this problem into perspective is in the elections of the early 2000s, in which, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Republican candidates gained more votes whenever Fox news entered a cable television market tipping the voting preferences of 3-8% of voters. Now imagine if Fox news was the only news network on television. It would drastically change the outcome of the entire election. That’s essentially what Google would be able to do if they wanted to since 77% of people use Google as their search engine. With this great power Google has, it brings up the question of whether Google will use SEME, and the answer is people don’t really know.

In 2017, Google was fined $2.7 billion by the European Union for having biased search results. Additionally, during the 2016 elections data showed that Hillary Clinton was favored in Google’s search results, being in all of the top ten positions on the search results. This was believed to have shifted two to three million votes to Hillary. So, it is entirely possible Google has used SEME on a small scale, though this could be due to Google’s search algorithm. For example, Obama’s search ranking was much higher leading up to the 2008 and 2012 elections, though not intended as far as we know.

Even though we are still in high school, I strongly believe that this is more relevant of an issue to us than ever before. With technology getting more and more advanced, it is hard to tell when you are being manipulated in this sort of way. Even if you aren’t voting in the 2020 elections, SEME could easily be used to manipulate many other topics or used as a new way of subconscious advertising.

Avoiding this democracy-destroying influence can be as easy as changing what search engine you use, since using a tacticque like SEME is only possible when a company can reach over 3?4 of those who browse the internet. Because of the way technology and companies have evolved, we need to be much more careful about how we get our information online since information can be manipulated in ways we wouldn’t expect, without us even knowing.

Photo from New Internationalist

By Axel de Vernou

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