Science, Technology, and Social Media

DUH! Study Suggests Big Tech Can Influence Flocks Of Undecided Voters ‘Without People’s Awareness’

A study has found that tech companies can influence the decisions of large numbers of undecided voters with search suggestions on search engines.

The study, conducted by Dr. Robert Epstein and several other affiliates of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT), sought to determine whether the suggestions that pop into the search bar when using engines like Google can influence the voting behavior of undecideds. Its findings suggest that the “search suggestion effect” (SSE) is real and powerful, so much so that search engine operators controlling search suggestions could have “the power to shift a large number of votes without people’s awareness,” Epstein told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“We found that negative suggestions attract far more clicks than neutral or positive ones, consistent with extensive research on negativity bias, and that the differential suppression of negative search suggestions can turn a 50/50 split among undecided voters into more than a 90/10 split favoring the candidate for whom negative search suggestions were suppressed,” the study states. “We conclude that differentially suppressing negative search suggestions can have a dramatic impact on the opinions and voting preferences of undecided voters, potentially shifting a large number of votes without people knowing and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.” 

While Epstein’s research indicates that the SSE can be strong, Google — by far the most popular search engine in the U.S. — says that it does not manipulate its search engine for political purposes.

“We do not manipulate search results, modify our products or enforce our policies in any way to promote or disadvantage any political ideology, viewpoint or candidate,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement shared with the DCNF. “We have strict policies for autocomplete and do not allow predictions that can be interpreted as a position for or against any political figure or party.”

Using the 2016 election as an example and making some assumptions, the combination of biased search suggestions and biased search results could have theoretically shifted about 1.5 million to 2 million voters to back Hillary Clinton, according to the study’s authors. The study controlled for all other influences to the greatest extent possible, meaning that the effect’s magnitude likely came out on the higher end than would be the case in real-life conditions, but the authors stress that the frequency with which people use search engines for political content means that the effect accumulates on voters over time in realistic conditions.

“When SSE is used in the real world, the magnitude of its impact will vary. What we have measured is likely the upper limit of that impact,” Epstein told the DCNF. “That said, in our experiments, we expose people to our manipulations just once, but in the real world, people are exposed to the same manipulations dozens or hundreds of times – especially in the months leading up to an election. Our ongoing research on the Multiple Exposure Effect (MEE) shows that the impact of these repeated exposures is additive, which makes manipulations like SSE especially dangerous.”

The researchers structured the study by conducting a series of five randomized, controlled, counterbalanced, double-blind experiments. Each of those experiments led up to the final test, which set up a simulated election for subjects — who were undecided and generally unfamiliar with the candidates — to engage with after exposure to manipulated search suggestions.

The results of the final experiment indicate that “a single negative search suggestion can impact opinions dramatically because it links to search results that might be strongly biased against the candidate in question,” the study states.

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Nick Pope

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