The results produced by search engines, including the big daddy of them all, Google, can be manipulated to influence voters before an election, researchers have found.
Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Roberston of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology examined how the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) can influence individuals doing online research about political campaigns. Their study (pdf) showed voters’ preferences can be swayed by 20% or more through manipulating search engine results to favor one candidate over another.
“Because SEME is virtually invisible as a form of social influence, because the effect is so large and because there are currently no specific regulations anywhere in the world that would prevent Google from using and abusing this technique, we believe SEME is a serious threat to the democratic system of government,” they wrote.
Epstein and Robertson also discovered certain demographics are more vulnerable to search engine manipulation than others, particularly voters with little knowledge of the candidates or undecided voters. The manipulation was so effective, they noted, that even users who were aware of SEME were still influenced by the search results.
In an essay published by Politico, Epstein warned of what search engine manipulation could mean for next year’s presidential election. “America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished,” Epstein wrote.
“Research I have been directing in…