By Liku Zelleke
A senior research psychologist says that Google could decide the outcome of the 2016 election by simply manipulating its search results. Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology said, in an op-ed, that even a small tweak of its secret algorithm could allow Google to swing next year’s presidential election either way.
Epstein says that he and a team of researchers have studied the behaviors of undecided voters who had been exposed to rigged search results. When they showed the voters results that favored a particular candidate they tended to shift their opinion towards voting for them.
According to the study, candidates’ favorability ratings could be increased by between 37% and 63% after a single 15-minute search session. The study was done on 4,500 undecided voters in the United States and India.
When a Google spokeswoman said that her company’s algorithm was designed to provide “relevant answers” and that tweaking them to favor one view or another “would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company,” Epstein responded by saying that her response was “meaningless.”
“How does providing ‘relevant answers’ to election-related questions rule out the possibility of favoring one candidate over another in search rankings? Google’s statement seems far short of a blanket denial that it ever puts its finger on the scales,” Epstein wrote.
The research suggests that the swinging of an election is a possibility and that it is “well within Google’s control” especially when considering President Barack Obama won the 2012 election by just 3.9% and next year’s election already looks too close to call.
Epstein doesn’t outright say that Google would rig an election, but he does say the attempt wouldn’t be unprecedented.
In 1876 Western Union tried to swing the presidential election in favor of its preferred candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. That election was the closest in the history of the U.S. and Western Union used its telegraph network monopoly and exclusive carriage contract with the Associated Press to ensure that only positive stories about Hayes made it through their wire.
Hayes went on to win by a very narrow margin.
Epstein says that even a rogue employee could tweak Google’s code without anyone else noticing as, on average, the search engine’s code is adjusted more than once a day.
Epstein said, “Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide as you read this.”