Google long ago went from being a mere directory of the Internet to a shaper of online reality, helping determine what we see and how. But what power does Google have over the “real” world – and especially the volatile one of closely contested elections? Psychologist Robert Epstein has been researching this question and says he is alarmed at what he has discovered. His most recent experiment, whose findings were released Monday, found that search engines have the potential to profoundly influence voters without them noticing the impact. Epstein has coined a term for this power: Search Engine Manipulation Effect, with the acronym SEME. Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and a vocal critic of Google, has not produced evidence that this or any other search engine has intentionally deployed this power. But the new experiment builds on his earlier work by measuring SEME in the concrete setting of India’s national election, whose voting concludes Monday.
With a group of more than 1,800 study participants – all undecided voters in India — the research team was able to shift votes by an average of 12.5 percent to favored candidates by deliberating altering their rankings in search results, Epstein said. There were also increases in the likelihood of voting and in measurements of trust for the preferred candidates, and there were decreases in the willingness to support rivals. Fewer than 1 of every 100 participants, meanwhile, detected the manipulation in the results.
“It confirms that in a real election, you can really shift voter preferences really dramatically,” said Epstein, now a senior research psychologist for the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, a non-profit group based in California, which conducted the study.