Your latest online search into the 2016 Presidential Race may be affecting your judgement in a big way. Robert Epstein, of the American Institute for Behavioral Research, has discovered that there is a significant effect on the election choices of voters depending on the order with which political candidate search results are displayed. As we all become more frequent users of Google when researching candidates, the impact of search rankings is having a noticeable effect on voting. The search result effect is most noticeable in undecided voters and and can easily swing the outcome of U.S. elections where margins of victory routinely hover near 1%.
“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.” says Epstein. The researcher found that manipulated search results can sway election results by margins over ten percent. Considering that many elections are won with margins near 1%, the findings raise tough questions about just how influential search placement is for political outcomes.
Epstein has received support for his claims from noted computer scientist Nicholas Diakopoulos of the University of Maryland, “I have a lot of faith in the methods they’ve used, and I think it’s a very rigorously conducted study.”
Testing his hypothesis in the 2014 general election in India, Epstein recruited 2150 undecided voters, and manipulated the candidates search results to favor one of the candidates. Doing so resulted in increasing the number of undecided voters choosing that candidate by 12%. Epstein illustrates the gravity of the situation as it relates to elections that are statistical stalemates, “In a two-person race, a candidate can only count on getting half of the uncommitted votes, which is worthless. With the help of biased search rankings, a candidate might be able to get 90% of the uncommitted votes (in selected demographics).”
Search algorithms don’t necessarily have to be programmed to have a bias for a particular candidate, for this to cause a potential problem. Search engine factors such as “relevance” may cause one candidate who has been covered in traditional media more than another candidate, to have higher search result listings. With the specter of possible voting machine tampering still hanging over past elections, the discovery of this phenomenon can only complicate matters further.