American psychologist Robert Epstein explains how search engine rankings can be manipulated. From Wired:

Epstein’s paper combines a few years’ worth of experiments in which Epstein and his colleague Ronald Robertson gave people access to information about the race for prime minister in Australia in 2010, two years prior, and then let the mock-voters learn about the candidates via a simulated search engine that displayed real articles.

One group saw positive articles about one candidate first; the other saw positive articles about the other candidate. (A control group saw a random assortment.) The result: Whichever side people saw the positive results for, they were more likely to vote for—by more than 48 percent. The team calls that number the “vote manipulation power,” or VMP. The effect held—strengthened, even—when the researchers swapped in a single negative story into the number-four and number-three spots. Apparently it made the results seem even more neutral and therefore more trustworthy.

The researchers verified the result in an actual election in India in 2014. The effect is called “recency,” meaning that people tend to be affected by the information they heard most recently.

Search engine algorithms are not neutral:

“It’s not really possible to have a completely neutral algorithm,” says Jonathan Bright, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute who studies elections. “I don’t think there’s anyone in Google or Facebook or anywhere else who’s trying to tweak an election. But it’s something these organizations have always struggled with.” Algorithms reflect the values and worldview of the programmers. That’s what an algorithm is, fundamentally. “Do they want to make a good effort to make sure they influence evenly across Democrats and Republicans? Or do they just let the algorithm take its course?” Bright asks.

Epstein offers a historical precedent at Politico:

There is precedent in the United States for this kind of backroom king-making. RutherfordB. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States [1877–1881)], was put into office in part because of strong support by Western Union. In the late 1800s, Western Union had a monopoly on communications in America, and just before the election of 1876, the company did its best to assure that only positive news stories about Hayes appeared in newspapers nationwide. It also shared all the telegrams sent by his opponent’s campaign staff with Hayes’s staff. Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to donate money to a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins. The technology guarantees the win, and the donation guarantees allegiance, which Google has certainly tapped in recent years with the Obama administration. More.

Some pundits think Epstein is overreacting. For example, media analyst David Karpf notes,

Undecided voters are overwhelmingly low-information voters. They aren’t watching political news. They’re mostly avoiding political advertising, when they can. They aren’t sitting at home Googling candidates. If they were, they wouldn’t be low-information voters.

True, but even if they are not interested in the election, the election may be interested in them.

Ultimately, if the stakes are high enough, and we do not watch out for the ways in which online life can mess with our minds, we are at risk. In addition to fake friends, fake product reviews, fake science journals, fake news, and fake political consensus (astroturf), we could have fake political opinions. Opinions we might not have if we sought to be independently better informed.

See also: Facepalm: Facebook experiments on its users, Part I and Part II.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...