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. 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. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson. Given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power, right now, to flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide. In the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9 percent—well within Google’s control. There are at least three very real scenarios whereby Google—perhaps even without its leaders’ knowledge—could shape or even decide the election next year. Whether or not Google executives see it this way, the employees who constantly adjust the search giant’s algorithms are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking—including, it turns out, our voting preferences.
What we call in our research the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) turns out to be one of the largest behavioral effects ever discovered. Our comprehensive new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), includes the results of five experiments we conducted with more than 4,500 participants in two countries. 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.
According to Google Trends, at this writing Donald Trump is currently trouncing all other candidates in search activity in 47 of 50 states. Could this activity push him higher in search rankings, and could higher rankings in turn bring him more support? Most definitely—depending, that is, on how Google employees choose to adjust numeric weightings in the search algorithm. Google acknowledges adjusting the algorithm 600 times a year, but the process is secret, so what effect Mr. Trump’s success will have on how he shows up in Google searches is presumably out of his hands.