If you’re like most people today, the first thing you do when you want to learn more about a subject is a quick and easy Google search. After all, it is generally accepted that Google knows everything. It can tell you all about products, people, American and World history, as well as the day’s news.
Search engines are able to shift a “50/50” split on an issue, where voters are undecided up to a “90/10” split, all without anyone’s conscious awareness of what has just happened to them.
But what happens when an undecided voter searches Google for information on a politician? What if the results show them something positive—or expressly negative? A new study from researchers at the American Institute of Behavioral Research and Technology suggests that Google actually has the power to manipulate voters by presenting negative (or positive) search results.
Negative information doesn’t even have to appear in the actual search results to be influential. The study shows that just viewing negative autocomplete suggestions in the search bar next to a candidate’s name was sufficient to potentially dissuade voters from “pulling the lever” for them.
These findings are significant: not only is evidence being presented that search engines (including Google) can manipulate undecided voters, for the first time, we have an estimate of the extent of Google’s influence. Search engines are able to shift a “50/50” split on an issue, where voters are undecided up to a “90/10” split, all without anyone’s conscious awareness of what has just happened to them.
Researchers conducted 16 months of experiments on 661 people, across all 48 contiguous U.S. states. The participants represented a diverse background of political ideologies, including conservative, liberal, and moderate voters. Participants were asked to judge political candidates that they were unfamiliar with to avoid having the results tainted by any pre-existing biases.
As the study developed, researchers also explored allegations of Google search suggestion manipulation during the 2016 election. At the time, Google appeared to be heavily featuring negative search suggestions for Donald Trump, while suppressing negative search results for Hillary Clinton. This bias wasn’t limited exclusively to Republican candidates either. Google disproportionately featured negative results for Hillary’s main rival for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders.
They also noted some interesting discrepancies with current Google search suggestions, especially when it came to commercial interests. For example, if you were to enter just “G” into the search bar, you would be inundated with search suggestions for other Google products.
Major brands were also favored in search suggestions—that is, of course, as long as they were affiliated with Google. Searching for “A” brings up suggestions for Amazon, who is one of Google’s biggest AdWords clients. “T” will bring up suggestions leading to retail giant Target, Google’s third-biggest advertising client.
This type of voter manipulation (via information redirection) could be deployed to help foreign countries “install” their preferred candidates.
This new evidence of search manipulation takes on heightened significance as we progress further into the 2020 election cycle. President Trump and conservatives, more generally, have already had their share of issues with negative Google search results. Besides, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been actively censoring conservative personalities in a manner so blatant that legislation has been proposed to combat it and ensure the future of online free speech.
Then, there is the matter of state-sponsored and private election manipulation attempts online. Theories of how the 2016 elections could have been affected by hacking continue to emerge throughout the internet following Donald Trump’s victory. In one case, a Russian hacker by the name of Konstantin Kozlovsky claims to have developed a program called “LDCS,” which he states can “replace information on Twitter, Facebook, Google, and leading U.S. media outlets.” If Kozlovsky’s claims are legitimate, this type of voter manipulation (via information redirection) could be deployed to help foreign countries “install” their preferred candidates. Programs like “LDCS” work similarly to browser hijacking malware like the Google Redirect Virus and V9 Redirect Virus.
Technological advancement has created unprecedented opportunities for the kind of mind control tactics that could easily become an everyday reality, and the threat of an Orwellian dystopia looms. For voters, parsing through news feeds and attempting to differentiate between what’s accurate and impartial—and what’s fake news—may be the biggest obstacle to Americans exerting their will on next November’s election.