Why Search Engines Are Capable of Deciding Elections

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, on July 18. Media coverage of Trump underscores how important Internet relevancy is to political campaigns. A new study finds that search engine rankings, a measure of the amount of online interest in a subject, are capable of swaying undecided voters. Jim Young/REUTERS

Sarah Palin might think that the news media are the kingmaker in American politics, but new research suggests that a different entity might be what is responsible for drastically influencing election results: search engine companies.

A study published by Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson under the auspices of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology found that the so-called Search Engine Manipulation Effect can sway elections. The theory behind SEME is that voters' preferences change substantially based on how high candidates' names, campaign news stories or articles about political platforms appear in search engine rankings. By making certain results or candidates appear at the top of the list, a search engine company could conceivably wield an enormous influence on the public narrative of an election cycle.

Using data gathered from elections in California and India, Epstein and Robertson found that "biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more." They also found that the shifts were affected by such factors as Internet access and demographics.

The study's conclusion posits a circular "bandwagon effect." Search rankings—how high something appears on the list of search results—affect undecided voters' preferences by giving more exposure to certain candidates or platforms. Conversely, voter preferences also affect the rankings themselves as more popular subjects with more citations and clicks become more likely to move up the list, making them more relevant. Even minor changes in search engine rankings can lead to large changes in real-world momentum.

The study argues that "search rankings are controlled in most countries today by a single company," suggesting that SEME is potentially far more impactful than something like a biased cable news station, which would likely be balanced by other news outlets. The phrase "threat to democracy" crops up multiple times in the study.

Epstein, the study's principal author, has been publishing research on the idea of SEME for several years now. Back in 2013, a paper that he presented at the Association for Psychological Science became the subject of a lengthy article, published in The Nation, detailing Epstein's prior personal friction with Google. The new study, it should be noted, suggests what search engine companies might do but does not necessarily argue that they already do it. The Nation quoted Yale computer science professor Michael Fischer as saying, "To the extent that somebody wants to build a politically biased search engine, they are certainly capable of doing that."

So far, there is little evidence that companies "want" to build such a search engine. Google relies on a computational algorithm that produces search results. The public can read an explanation of early Google software, penned by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page when they were undergraduates at Stanford, here.

Brin and Page argued two key points in this early paper. First, that "PageRank" was designed to limit third-party manipulation of search results, and second, that the algorithm assumes the position of a "bored surfer"—i.e., those more likely to be interested in pages with a large number of citations. The explanation appears under the heading "Bringing Order to the Internet."

Though Google didn't exactly plan it this way, the primacy of rankings on search engine lists has become an important competitive advantage in such fields as politics or business. After all, when it comes to public discourse presented by the media and the Internet, perception is often reality. If Donald Trump appears at the top of the list when someone searches for "GOP candidates," he is more likely to be perceived as a viable political figure. Epstein calls this phenomenon "order effects." Items placed first on a list, such as the highest results in a Google search, are more likely to be noticed and remembered than the 10th, 100th or thousandth result.

Many businesses and politicians already know this, which has led to the evolution of an entire industry designed to give companies a competitive edge in rankings. Search engine optimization providers use a variety of methods to make sure that their clients' webpages "pop up" more often on engines.

Google has consistently denied that it would ever manipulate search results. In a statement emailed to Newsweek, a Google representative, after suggesting that further research be conducted, wrote that Google's overall position on the issue "remains" what it was two years ago, when the company provided the same statement to The Nation: "Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google's approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine people's trust in our results and company if we were to change course."

Asked about the company's ability to potentially sway the public on issues like the stock market, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt famously quipped: "There are many, many things that Google could do that we chose not to do."