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What if a Search Engine Could Determine an Election?

Hari Sreenivasan hosted a Google Hangout with Dr. Robert Epstein, whose study on search engine rankings show that results can be manipulated in a way that may influence voter preference.

Where do you get your political news? Perhaps you have a favorite blog, or scan Twitter for links to interesting articles. Most likely you look for information about candidates using a search engine. But what if those search results had been manipulated? Dr. Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, addressed that very question in his latest study, which he will present at the Association for Psychological Science Convention in May.

“We’ve discovered that search engine rankings can be manipulated in ways that dramatically change voter preferences,” Epstein told PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan in a Google Hangout on Friday.

In the study, Epstein and his team used a mock search engine, real material from Australia’s 2010 Prime Ministerial Election and three different test groups. When the study’s participants looked up candidates on the search engine, one test group found search rankings favorable to candidate Tony Abbott, the second found rankings favorable to opposing candidate Julia Gillard and the last group had rankings that didn’t favor either candidate. Epstein found that the differing results could influence people to vote for one candidate over the other by margins of 15 percent or more. “What we are showing is … search rankings alone can shift people,” he said.

Epstein said the reasoning behind such a large change in opinion is that search placement affects people’s thinking. “People trust higher-ranked search results and that’s what we are doing, we are just tapping into that phenomena and applying it to politics.”

The findings have large implications both in the United States and globally. If search engines were to manipulate political search results, they could potentially determine who wins and who loses, according to Epstein. “This introduces though, another entirely new realm of influence and one which has no parallel in my opinion,” he said. “What is happening here is that a company could literally influence the outcome of elections a) with no one knowing and b) with no possible balance, no corrective. In other words no one there counteracting what they are doing, so that’s extremely dangerous.”

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