When President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he’ll mention an array of programs and people. And all across America, fingers will start flying on computer keyboards as millions of curious viewers go to Google or Bing or Yahoo in search of more detail on those programs and people. It’s the way we make sense of the world around us in the Internet age. Everything’s on the web; just look it up and you’ll be enlightened, right? Not necessarily, say the authors of a 2015 study into the ways search engines can influence voter behavior, and perhaps even the outcomes of elections. Depending on how the search engine results are displayed, or if they are manipulated, you could end up misguided rather than enlightened.
Researchers Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson based their study on five controlled experiments involving more than 4,500 undecided voters. They asked subjects for their opinions and voting preferences before and after letting them conduct research on mock search engines they’d created. Some subjects were shown search results biased in favor of one candidate, while others were shown results biased toward neither candidate.
They found that biased search rankings could shift voting preferences among undecided voters by 20 percent or more, and that the bias can be masked so people don’t even know they’re being manipulated.
The authors note that people tend to put the most weight on web links landing at the top of the first page of results – even when lower-ranked results dovetail more closely with their search. This despite the fact that the average person has no earthly idea how Google and other search firms decide which results appear first. We just trust them to meet our needs and to do so fairly.