Here’s their abstract:
Internet search rankings have a significant impact on consumer choices, mainly because users trust and choose higher-ranked results more than lower-ranked results. Given the apparent power of search rankings, we asked whether they could be manipulated to alter the preferences of undecided voters in democratic elections. Here we report the results of five relevant double-blind, randomized controlled experiments, using a total of 4,556 undecided voters representing diverse demographic characteristics of the voting populations of the United States and India. The fifth experiment is especially notable in that it was conducted with eligible voters throughout India in the midst of India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections just before the final votes were cast. The results of these experiments demonstrate that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) search ranking bias can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. We call this type of influence, which might be applicable to a variety of attitudes and beliefs, the search engine manipulation effect. Given that many elections are won by small margins, our results suggest that a search engine company has the power to influence the results of a substantial number of elections with impunity. The impact of such manipulations would be especially large in countries dominated by a single search engine company.
Now, read that last sentence again.
Fact is, Google dominates the search engine industry in the U.S. By this research, if Google tweaks its algorithm to show more favorable search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more favorable opinion of them.
And since the majority of presidential elections are won by little margins, Epstein said in an op-ed biased Google search rankings could well ease the next president into office:
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.
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.
This is not the first time Google has received such accusations. The EU earlier this year accused Google
of using its dominant market share in web search to turn users away from competing products.
These are weighty accusations no one should make without credible evidence. Google has always said its interest is to show only the most relevant results to searchers, and even has SEO strategies it recommends to avoid search results manipulation.
But I have doubts about Google’s stance.
Just one example: I rarely see Vimeo videos on Google search results. One would think YouTube is the only video sharing site in Google’s search index.
What do you think?