Research findings indicate that the way Google’s search algorithm interprets election-related information can influence the voting preferences of undecided voters by 25 percent or more. Research psychologist Robert Epstein performed a study that found that the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) has had potential to seriously threaten America’s democratic system for the past 18 years. Half of our presidential elections were won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election by a margin of only 3.9 percent—well within Google’s control.
Robert Epstein wrote an op-ed highlighting research he recently conducted with Ronald Robertson, which led them this discovery. Before the 2016 election, Google Trends named Donald Trump ahead of all other candidates in search activity in 47 out of 50 states.
Corporate media outlets including CNN Money and Fortune also reported Epstein’s research, but provided no further speculation. Other news media including The Daily Beast and Shouting Loudly drew their own conclusions by saying that the study has little to do with actual voting, and that undecided voters do not actually make decisions by Googling candidates. Epstein and Robertson’s extensive research says otherwise, indicating they were able to impact the proportion of the people who favored any candidate by up to 63 percent.
Robert Epstein, “How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election” Politico, August 19, 2015 http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/how-google-could-rig-the-2016-election-121548
Andrew Gelman, Kaiser Fung, “Could Google Rig the 2016 Election? Don’t Believe the Hype” The Daily Beast, September 21, 2015 http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/21/could-google-rig-the-2016-election-don-t-believe-the-hype.html
David Karpf, “No, Politico, Google Can’t Rig the 2016 Election (without trying REALLY hard, at least)” Shouting Loudly, August 21, 2015 http://www.shoutingloudly.com/2015/08/21/no-politico-google-cant-rig-the-2016-election-without-trying-really-hard-at-least
Mark Frary, “Whose World Are You Watching?,” Index on Censorship, 44(4) (December 2015), pp. 69-73 [Extract available via: http://ioc.sagepub.com/content/44/4/69.extract]
Student Researcher: Brandy Miceli, San Francisco State University
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows, San Francisco State University