In a tight election campaign there’s no telling what will separate the winners from the losers on voting day. A key policy announcement, an embarrassing gaffe or an impressive debate performance can end up making all the difference. But according to a new U.S. study, there’s an untapped force that has the potential to be just as decisive as any of those: Internet search rankings. Research published this month in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that search engine results could have a powerful effect on how people vote. It determined that if search rankings were manipulated to allow a preferred candidate to dominate the top results, it could shift voting preferences of undecided voters by at least 20 per cent.
The paper did not accuse Google or any other company of manipulating results; nor is there evidence that search engines have deliberately interfered in elections anywhere. But the researchers said their results suggest that a search engine company, if it chose to, “has the power to influence the results of a substantial number of elections with impunity.”
The authors dubbed it the “search engine manipulation effect,” or SEME. “This is a very scary phenomenon,” study co-author Dr. Robert Epstein told Torstar News Service.
Recent polls suggest the Canadian federal election could come down to the wire. According to a poll conducted by Forum Research on Aug. 10 and 11, the NDP had 34 per cent support, compared to the Conservatives’ 28 per cent, and the Liberals’ 27 per cent. One poll published earlier in the month found 60 per cent of voters were still undecided.