The media has always played an important role in political life, whatever the country. The fact that they can affect voter decision-making is not new. We remember the investigative journalism of the Washington Post, which exposed the Watergate scandal and forced US President Richard Nixon to resign; or Rutherford Hayes who reached the American presidency thanks to strong support from the Western Union, which at the time held a monopoly on communications.
However, no media has had the same influence as search engines, especially Google.
Google and its algorithm influence our choices, the way we access information, how we express our opinions and our consumption habits. Problems resulting from the lack of control or regulations on search engines, including the purchase of keywords by candidates, force us to rethink how the internet can impact oÅur democracies. Search engines can easily influence voters’ perceptions of candidates, and therefore the way they vote.
Search Engine Manipulation Effect
The search engine manipulation effect is the name given to this new phenomenon. It expresses the changes in preferences and consumer choices caused by changes in results provided by search engines. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to voters’ election preferences.
Imagine an election. A close election. Hundreds of thousands of voters are undecided, like you. By simply typing the name of election candidates in the search bar, dozens of results, articles, blogs and facts about the candidate appear. To help you make an objective and informed decision? Not exactly! According to a recent study, the order of negative and positive results when searching for a presidential candidate greatly influences how we vote.
Voters sometimes tend to choose the candidate best positioned on search engines. The fact that a search engines put forth one candidate at the expense of others greatly impacts the voters’ choice. And if the election is tight, the effect can be significant enough to change the outcome.
This trend is further amplified by social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, which can tarnish a candidate’s image, invoke support, or assign blame within instants.
Google for America
Just Google it. Much like Barack Obama’s famous “Yes We Can”, these words could be a great slogan for Google, if it got involved in the race for the US presidency. Pure fiction? Not really, given the important role its algorithm plays in voters’ decision making, and by extension, in American political life.
According to Robert Epstein, a researcher at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, Google could even elect a president of their choice by changing its search engine algorithm. He explains that Google’s search engine can “change the voting preferences of 20% of undecided voters, and up to 80% in some demographic groups.” The somewhat subjective nature of the Google algorithm could have the authority to tilt the elections.
But how can we mandate Google’s neutrality when we don’t know all of the criteria taken into account by the algorithm? Is regulating Google necessary for the health of our democracies, or would this be contrary to the freedom of opinion, worrisome because of its transparency? Digital disruption is renewing this democratic debate. The internet, by allowing people to organize into networks and giving them the means to express themselves, has made Google a new stakeholder in democracy.jj