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Friday, May 17, 2013

Could Google Rig an Election?

Research psychologist Robert Epstein, a former editor of Psychology Today, has coauthored a study with Dr. Ronald E.  Robertson of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, on this question called “Democracy at Risk.” It is slated for presentation at this year’s meeting of the Association for Psychological Science:
In a double-blind, controlled experiment, web pages and search engine results from an actual election were presented to three groups of eligible voters. In two of the groups, rankings favored one candidate or the other. Preferences shifted dramatically toward favored candidates, with 75% of subjects showing no awareness of the manipulation. In a second experiment, voter preferences again shifted in the predicted direction, and the proportion of people who were unaware of the manipulation was increased by slightly altering the rankings to mask the favoritism. In a third experiment, a more aggressive mask was used to hide the manipulation, and no subjects appeared to be aware of it, even though voter preferences still shifted in the predicted directions. We conclude (1) that the outcomes of real elections—especially tight races—could conceivably be determined by the strategic manipulation of search engine rankings and (2) that the manipulation could be accomplished without people being aware of it.
Based on his reading of the work, Evan Leatherwood (Associate Director for Communications at Fordham University’s Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy, & Education) concluded in the May 6, 2013 edition of The Nation: "insiders at a dominant search engine (at the moment, Google) could, if they chose, covertly pick members of Congress and even the president. What’s more, says Epstein, it is perfectly legal for a search engine to behave this way."
Michael Fischer, a professor of computer science at Yale, agrees that there is cause for concern. “To the extent that somebody wants to build a politically biased search engine, they are certainly capable of doing that,” Fischer says. “We don’t have any way of knowing what biases, if any, the search engines we currently use have, and this is a concern not just for elections, but for all areas of our democracy.”
Much of the rest of the article discusses the First Amendment implications of regulating search engines. Leatherwood favors a public and transparent search engine that does not take advertising dollars.

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