Manipulation of Search Engine Results Can Sway Undecided Voters by at Least 20%

Wednesday, December 23, 2015
(photo: David Goldman, AP)

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 recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had,” he said.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

How Using Search Engines Impacts Voter Decisions (by Christina Sukhgian Houle, Journalist’s Resource)

How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election (by Robert Epstein, Politico)

Will Search Engine Algorithms Affect Our Voting Preferences? (by Megan Anderle, Dell Power More)

The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and Its Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections (by Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson, American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology) (pdf)

Political Campaigns find that Online Advertising Space—Just Like TV and Print—has Its Limits (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Internet Search Analysis Finds Drug Side Effects Faster than FDA (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


anonamouse 8 years ago
This article makes an excellent point: in a mass democracy no one actually knows the person they are voting for, so the game depends on controlling perceptions, which is to say controlling access to information. Hello, Google! But, at the same time, this article ignores the deeper crisis in our democracy, which is that elites ultimately decide WHO gets to run. In that way, we are little different from any totalitarian state --- think the USSR --- in which you can vote for any candidate you like because it won't change a thing; when it comes to the issues that really matter to the powerful, nearly all the incumbents are "owned" and can be counted on to vote as desired. Case in point, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: 416-0. You'd think they were voting on the sanctity of motherhood. To twist Rothschild, the elites "care not how the people vote, so long as they get to choose the candidates."

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