Search engines like Google can shift political opinions of undecided voters quite easily, research into the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) shows.
By inserting negative search suggestions under the name of a candidate, up to 43.4 percent of voters were swayed. Some 16 months of experiments were conducted with a total of 1800 people from all 50 US states.
According to new research by a team at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, Breitbart News reported how the manipulation of results pages in search engines can shift the voting preferences of undecideds by anywhere between 20 and 80 percent.
Depending on the demographic, the lead author of the study, Dr. Robert Epstein, lokked at how search engines can affect voters by suggesting negative or positive search terms next to a political candidate’s name.
Epstein’s research found that negative search terms had a dramatic effect on voter opinion:
The voting preferences of participants who saw no search suggestions shifted toward the favored candidate by 37.1 percent. The voting preferences of participants in the search suggestion groups who saw only positive search suggestions shifted similarly (35.6 percent). However, the voting preferences of participants who saw three positive search suggestions and one negative search suggestion barely shifted (1.8 percent); this occurred because the negative search suggestion attracted more than 40 percent of the clicks (negativity bias). In other words, a single negative search suggestion can impact opinions dramatically. Participants who were shown four negative suggestions (and no positives) shifted away from the candidate shown in the search bar (-43.4 percent).
Manipulating adjectives associated with a candidate’s name, meant search engines could shift a “50/50 split split among people who are undecided on an issue to a 90/10 split without people’s awareness and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to follow”.
Participants in the study came from various ideological backgrounds, including from liberal as well as conservative camps. In order therefore to control for political biases, participants were asked to judge political candidates that they were unfamiliar with.
The researchers have found a recurring pattern of major brands being top-listed in Google search suggestions when financially linked to Google. The top search suggestions for “a” is Amazon – Google’s top client on Google Adwords, and the top search suggestion for “t” is Target – Google’s third-biggest advertising client.
In Google’s current search suggestions, entering “G” into the search bar will instantly provide users with suggestions about other Google products – Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive, etc.
During the 2016 election, Google had allegedly suppressed negative search suggestions for Hillary Clinton while allowing negative suggestions for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to remain.