Published 4:00 AM EDT Sep 13, 2018
I am not a Trump supporter. I’m not even a conservative. But I love America and democracy, and I defend truth when I see it, and President Donald Trump is not only justified in expressing misgivings about Google and other tech companies — he seems to have no idea just how big a threat Google-and-the-Gang pose to both democracy and human autonomy.
In a forthcoming article in Fast Company, I have detailed 10 different methods Big Tech companies can use to shift millions of votes in the midterm elections with no one knowing they’re doing so and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace — upwards of 12 million votes, by my calculations. These powerful new means of manipulation make fake news stories and targeted ads, sources of influence that are both competitive and visible, look like kid stuff.
I’ve been a research scientist for nearly 40 years, and for more than five years now, I’ve been discovering, studying and quantifying new methods of influence that the internet has made possible. Two of these methods — the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME, pronounced “seem”) and the Search Suggestion Effect (SSE) — are among the most powerful types of influence ever discovered in the behavioral sciences.
Google search results affect elections
My randomized, controlled and peer-reviewed research on SEME shows that when one candidate is favored in search results, that can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more — up to 80 percent in some demographic groups. My new research on SSE suggests that (a) Google is manipulating opinions from the very first character people type into the Google search bar, and (b) by manipulating search suggestions (those phrases they flash at you while you’re typing your search term), Google can turn a 50/50 split among undecided voters into an astonishing 90/10 split.
Those boxes they often show you at the top of the results page, the so-called “featured snippets,” also shift votes and opinions, possibly boosting the impact of SEME by between 10 and 30 percent.
Is there evidence of actual favoritism in Google’s search engine? Well, the European Union certainly thinks so, having fined Google $2.7 billion last year for having biased search results. In the months leading up to the 2016 election here in the U.S., I led a team that used objective methods to preserve 13,207 online election-related searches and the 98,044 web pages to which the search results linked. These data showed that Google’s search results favored Hillary Clinton (whom I supported) in all 10 positions on the first page of search results — enough, perhaps, to have shifted two or three million votes in her direction over time.
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Was this just, as Google likes to claim, an “organic” phenomenon — you know, something Google’s algorithm did all by itself based on user preferences? (What an idiotic claim. I mean, who wrote the algorithm that acts on those preferences?) Maybe — except that I found pro-Clinton favoritism in searches originating in red states, not just in blue states.
As for Google’s vacuous denials about having political preferences — defended uncritically in recent days by reporters like CNN’s Hadas Gold — let’s review: Google’s Eric Schmidt not only helped supervise Obama’s tech teams in 2008 and 2012, he also offered to supervise Hillary Clinton’s entire tech operation and bankrolled a highly secretive tech operation, The Groundwork, to assist her campaign. Clinton’s Chief Technology Officer was Stephanie Hannon, a former Google executive, and more than 95 percent of the company’s political donations have gone to Democratic candidates in recent elections.
That said, the problem is not about hurting conservatives; it’s much bigger than that. Google has also been accused of suppressing socialists and progressive groups. And whatever the company’s political preferences are today, they could change tomorrow, both in the U.S. and other countries. Democracy itself is at stake here.
Google's ability to shift votes is unparalleled
There’s nothing wrong with a company supporting one candidate or party — Microsoft was one of Clinton's biggest donors, after all — but no company in the history of the world has had the ability to shift votes and opinions to the extent and on the scale that Google has. When there are signs that Google is supporting one candidate or cause, we need to pay close attention to what it is showing people.
Are executives and employees at Google aware of the power they have to alter people’s thinking? You bet. Read Jonathan Taplin’s recent book, "Move Fast and Break Things," for a close look at some of creepy key players, or, if you want to get really creeped out, view Google’s own 8-minute video, “The Selfish Ledger,” which crows about the company’s ability to impose its “values” on “the species as a whole” (you can download my transcript of the video here).
I’m working with business associates and academic colleagues to build large-scale monitoring systems that will eventually make companies like Google accountable to the public, but in the meantime, we are totally at their mercy, and the free-and-fair election is little more than illusion.
Trump’s war on the media is disturbing, and I sometimes worry about his competence to serve. But he’s right about Google — more right than he knows.
Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, is a former editor in chief of Psychology Today and the author of 15 books. He is currently working on a book called "Technoslavery: Invisible Influence in the Internet Age and Beyond." Follow him on Twitter: @DrREpstein