Fact Check: Could Google Really Rig the 2016 Election?

Fact Check: Could Google Really Rig the 2016 Election?

In a controversial Op-Ed in Politico, researcher Robert Epstein claims that “Google Could Rig the 2016 Election” simply by manipulating search results in favor of their chosen candidate. Although search engine optimization experts have been railing against the incredible influence Google holds over the Internet for a decade, this new research is the clearest indicator yet that SEO can change hearts and minds in a very real way.

Epstein and his fellow researchers used real articles and search results, but contained within a custom search engine they created called Kadoodle. Their subjects were given search results that favored candidate A, candidate B, and unaltered results. Epstein writes:

“When our participants were done searching, we asked them those questions again, and, voilà: On all measures, opinions shifted in the direction of the candidate who was favored in the rankings. Trust, liking and voting preferences all shifted predictably.

More alarmingly, we also demonstrated this shift with real voters during an actual electoral campaign — in an experiment conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters throughout India during the 2014 Lok Sabha election there — the largest democratic election in history, with more than 800 million eligible voters and 480 million votes ultimately cast.”,/em>

The researchers concluded that the content of SERPs, or search engine results pages, could change the proportion of voters favoring a given candidate by 20 to 60%. What’s more, because of the secrecy surrounding Google’s search algorithms (a recent 2015 update was so hush-hush SEO services dubbed it “Phantom”), no one would even know if Google started toying with its SERPs.

Although elite web developers might be able to raise red flags over a candidate’s SEO results, there’s a high probability no one would even notice. Google, for its part, claims search results are sacrosanct. Before the 2012 election, LGBT activists used SEO techniques to design a vulgar, extremely NSFW website that displaced candidate Rick Santorum’s official website. The SEO campaign succeeded, and Google refused to step in and remove the offensive search results.

Of course, before you break out the pitchforks, remember that Epstein’s Op-Ed comes with the usual Silicon Valley blindspot. The article barely considers the millions of Americans who don’t rely on search engines like Google to research candidates. But then again, as of 2014, 64% of Americans owned a smartphone, and 61% of global internet users regularly did research online. Not only that, but global mobile ad spending online is expected to grow by three-and-a-half times its current size by 2016, election year. So there’s no doubt that the way we search will have a real effect on that contest’s outcome.

Maybe the next time SEO and web services experts complain about the outsize power wielded by Google, more people will pay attention.