January 21, 2016

Could Google sway an election? If so, how?

Denyse O'LearyRebel Blogger

American psychologist Robert Epstein explains how search engine rankings can be manipulated.

From Wired:

Epstein’s paper combines a few years’ worth of experiments in which Epstein and his colleague Ronald Robertson gave people access to information about the race for prime minister in Australia in 2010, two years prior, and then let the mock-voters learn about the candidates via a simulated search engine that displayed real articles.

One group saw positive articles about one candidate first; the other saw positive articles about the other candidate. (A control group saw a random assortment.) The result: Whichever side people saw the positive results for, they were more likely to vote for—by more than 48 percent. The team calls that number the “vote manipulation power,” or VMP. The effect held—strengthened, even—when the researchers swapped in a single negative story into the number-four and number-three spots. Apparently it made the results seem even more neutral and therefore more trustworthy.

The researchers verified the result in an actual election in India in 2014. The effect is called “recency,” meaning that people tend to be affected by the information they heard most recently.

Search engine algorithms are not neutral:

“It’s not really possible to have a completely neutral algorithm,” says Jonathan Bright, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute who studies elections. “I don’t think there’s anyone in Google or Facebook or anywhere else who’s trying to tweak an election. But it’s something these organizations have always struggled with.” Algorithms reflect the values and worldview of the programmers. That’s what an algorithm is, fundamentally. “Do they want to make a good effort to make sure they influence evenly across Democrats and Republicans? Or do they just let the algorithm take its course?” Bright asks.

Epstein offers a historical precedent at Politico:

There is precedent in the United States for this kind of backroom king-making. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States [1877–1881)], was put into office in part because of strong support by Western Union. In the late 1800s, Western Union had a monopoly on communications in America, and just before the election of 1876, the company did its best to assure that only positive news stories about Hayes appeared in newspapers nationwide. It also shared all the telegrams sent by his opponent’s campaign staff with Hayes’s staff.

Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to donate money to a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins. The technology guarantees the win, and the donation guarantees allegiance, which Google has certainly tapped in recent years with the Obama administration.

Some pundits think Epstein is overreacting.

For example, media analyst David Karpf notes:

Undecided voters are overwhelmingly low-information voters. They aren’t watching political news. They’re mostly avoiding political advertising, when they can. They aren’t sitting at home Googling candidates. If they were, they wouldn’t be low-information voters.

True, but even if they are not interested in the election, the election may be interested in them.

Ultimately, if the stakes are high enough, and we do not watch out for the ways in which online life can mess with our minds, we are at risk.

In addition to fake friends, fake product reviews, fake science journals, fake news, and fake political consensus (astroturf), we could have fake political opinions. Opinions we might not have if we sought to be independently better informed.

(This article originally appeared at Mercatornet.com)


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commented 2016-01-22 00:43:19 -0500
Michael. You’re right, but the momentum BO had was due to a number of things, including Oprah, including Pallin’s meltdown on the other side (and the fact McCain picker her showed bad judgement), favouritism from the msm etc. And yes, he’s charismatic etc. In short, all the planets lined up. Too bad he turned out to be the worst President ever!!
commented 2016-01-21 19:47:14 -0500

Obama would have still won in 2008 even if Oprah was never born. McCain/Palin didn’t have a hope in hell. You are delusional to think otherwise.

You seem to forget that the GOP realized as Palin was having a big meltdown – that choosing her as Vice President was a big fucking mistake. No one could beat someone as cool and charismatic as Obama. Not to mention all the people that wanted America to have it’s first black President.
commented 2016-01-21 18:03:41 -0500
Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to [receive funding, or promises thereof, from] a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins.

CBC, anyone….anyone
commented 2016-01-21 17:58:31 -0500
Michael Mann, Michael, being contrary to everything suggests a dose of reality is required from time to time . I have to admit that you are right about the end of the show and the new network project, however, Oprah is exactly why Obama was a lock in 2008! She had a ridiculous influence over people and she swooned over Obama numerous times on her show Just as books and consumer items flew off the shelf a day after being endorsed on Oprah, Bam Bam was a given because her audience believed she is a god.
commented 2016-01-21 16:48:39 -0500

What the hell are you talking about? Oprah quit her incredibly profitable TV show to start her own network, which is failing due to lack of content that people want to watch. The election had nothing to do with her talk show.

People didn’t need swaying either – in 2008, Obama was a lock. You actually think McCain/Palin had a hope in hell of winning?
commented 2016-01-21 15:49:43 -0500
Oprah Winfrey got into the game of swaying voters for Obama’s 2008 win and it cost her a TV show and billions in lost revenues (yes, Harpo used to generate about $10B per year before 2008 according to Crains). And how is Oprah doing today? Not so good. She’s not broke, but not so good.

If Google plays the same game, they could lose a ton in revenue as a result. And there is enough online media to crush Google if they step out of line.

Google has the luxury of controlling much of the web in a reasonably balanced way (no arguments please from those in google jail). It would be a shame if Google, through their own arrogance, becomes unbalanced.