Could Google manipulate elections?

  • 10 June 2014
Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google search results are an increasingly important source of political information for the world's voters

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According to Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, Google has within its power - whether intentionally or not - to give a winning push to a political candidate in a close election.

He concedes that there is no evidence that Google is currently tampering in the electoral process, but thanks to how it ranks search results - the stories you see when you Google a candidate's name, for instance - the company can have a meaningful influence on how an increasingly large portion of the electorate gets its news and information about politics and politicians.

He writes in US News and World Report:

With its virtual monopoly on search, Google has the power to flip the outcomes of close elections easily - and without anyone knowing. Over time, they could change the face of parliaments and congresses worldwide to suit their business needs - keeping regulators at bay, getting favourable tax deals and so on. And because their business is unregulated in most countries at this point, flipping elections in this way would be legal.

Epstein calls this the "search engine manipulation effect". He and a team of researchers set out to show how Google results could influence public opinion. By feeding study participants in San Diego, California, customised search results on candidates in the 2010 prime minster race in Australia, they were able to switch the subjects' initial preferences toward targeted politicians.

He writes:

Search rankings have this powerful effect on votes for the same reason that they have one on consumer behaviour: the higher the ranking, the more people believe and trust the content, mistakenly assuming that some impartial and omniscient genie has carefully evaluated each Web page and put the best ones first. (Not so.)

Epstein's team then tried the same technique on 2,000 actual voters in India's recent presidential election.

"That's right, we deliberately manipulated the voting preferences of more than 2,000 real voters in the largest democratic election in the history of the world," he writes, "easily pushing the preferences of undecided voters by more than 12% in any direction we chose - double that amount in some demographic groups."

He estimates that this kind of tampering could be decisive in any election within a 2.9% margin.

Even if Google never intentionally tries to influence elections, he adds, its search algorithms could be tilting the playing field toward one candidate, party or ideology. For instance, he notes Barack Obama consistently placed higher in search rankings than his Republican opponents during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

He concludes by calling for greater oversight of Google, including requirements that different candidates and parties receive equally representation in search results:

Whenever a major source of influence is biased, with no possibility that opposing views will be heard, the impact of that influence is overwhelming. This is typically the case in dictatorships, which is why elections in such countries are farces. At the moment, the Google search engine is a source of unopposed influence, which also happens to be highly credible, opaque in its methodology, massive in scope, rapidly increasing in reach and beyond the scrutiny or control of both regulators and candidates. Other sources of influence during elections compete with and largely offset each other, but Google stands alone.

Epstein, it should be noted, has a bone to pick with Google dating back to January 2012. It was then that the search site labelled the psychologist's home page a possible hacker attack page when it came up in its search results.

The New York Times's Nicole Perlroth recounts Epstein's efforts to clear his virtual name in a 5 January 2012 story.

Vietnam

The next member of the nuclear club? - "For a small state in a high-crime neighbourhood, however, nothing guarantees survival like a bomb in the basement," writes the Andrew L Peek in the Fiscal Times.

Such is the logic behind his contention that Vietnam will become the world's newest member of the nuclear weapons club.

Vietnam is alone in Asia, he says, with few allies. Although it benefits from the status quo balance of power in Asia, unlike Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines, it does not have guarantees of security from the US. That leaves it vulnerable to China's territorial ambitions, he says, as have been demonstrated through recent confrontations between the two nations in the South China Sea.

"Acquiring a nuclear capability wouldn't immediately put Vietnam on the same footing as China, no more than North Korea is with the United States," he concludes. "However, it would guarantee the regime's survival from external threats, and give Beijing pause when it feels like playing border games."

Cuba

US policy frozen in time - While Cuba's domestic situation has been changing rapidly under the leadership of Raul Castro, writes Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post, the US continues to cling to Cold War-era policies.

The US trade embargo on the island nation does more to isolate the US than Cuba, she writes. "Washington's relationship with the region is deteriorating, corroded by its policy toward Cuba."

The US is missing out on an investment rush into Cuba, she says, with countries like Brazil, China and the UK standing to benefit the most.

"Of course, Cuba faces severe challenges," she writes. The Cuban regime still cracks down on free expression and "constricts" human rights. But if US Cuban policy continues to be dominated by "anti-Castro zealots", she says, the US may miss an opportunity to help take a constructive part in shaping the nation's future.

Libya

Gaddafi's long shadow - Libya's central government will be incapable of ruling effectively, writes the New American Foundation's Barak Barfi, until it comes to terms with former leader Muammar Gaddafi's legacy.

Gaddafi fractured state institutions and weakened government bureaucracies in order to consolidate his control of the nation, he writes for Project Syndicate. New governance structures must be built to create a "fair and credible system based on the rule of law".

Libya's current leaders also must build on one of Gaddafi's successes: his push to promote "women's social and economic inclusion".

"Libya's leaders - and their Western benefactors - have no choice but to consider and address the effects of Gaddafi's legacy on public attitudes and official behaviour," he concludes.

Colombia

Football is king - Football has become the new opiate of the masses, writes Jose Luis Garces Gonzalez in Colombia's El Espectador (translated by WorldCrunch).

"The team has become a kind of fatherland, a soul, something that gives us the victories that life will not," he writes.

"In many societies, football tends to replace everything, sweeping aside political proposals, religious beliefs, family ties, economic upheaval and social injustice," he continues." It represents faith, the mother of all passions, and, in a word, ideology."

Football has become more than a game, he says, it is now proxy war between nations. "The blood of heroes and worth of our ancestors have become a soccer ball. Round like the world it dominates."

BBC Monitoring's quotes of the day

Iran and the US began two days of meetings on the nuclear issue on Monday. Ongoing talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, US) are focused on reaching a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear programme. Iranian commentators discuss the future of the interim deal freezing much of Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, which expires on 20 July.

"Iran has displayed maximum goodwill and flexibility based on its red lines… Iran has taken the necessary steps, and now it is America's turn to take the final and important step." - Nader Sa'ed in Javan.

"The American side has the necessary determination to resolve Iran's nuclear issue. Two American authorities, who participated in secret talks with Iran in the past, are going to join the team of negotiators with Iran. This move by America shows that the American government is trying to hold the talks in a positive environment based on previous experience." - Gholamali Khoshru in Iran.

"Open and direct dialogue between Iran and America is a real opportunity for the future of Iran's nuclear dossier, and it seems that the high-level authorities of the two countries have realized this... As we witnessed in the beginning of the new round of talks, the behaviour of the P5+1 group is directly influenced by the position of the White House authorities." - Davud Hermaidas Bavand in Arman. ‎

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