Women show their voters' identity card after casting their votes at a polling booth(Image Source: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS)

15th March 2019 : The omnipotent search engine of these times, Google, with their search ranking algorithms can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more – And given that many elections tip over by small margins, this can mean that Google has the power to flip election results worldwide.

A detailed study elucidating numerous ways in which the search engine giant Google can rig elections in a country, based on years of study and research conducted in the U.S and India by the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology.

Image Source: IANS

Representative image

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Google – the sole authority of deciding search rankings.
  • Search Engine Manipulation Effect
  • How Google search activity predicted the winner of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in India.
  • The three very real scenarios whereby Google could shape or even decide this upcoming elections in India.

This peculiar century that we live now has one motto floating around it: Data is God; so Google is god! Google owns google in the first place, which itself is humongous. Then they have YouTube, Gmail, Cloud technology, Artificial Intelligence and what not?

The Google search engine alone has immense power within itself as the whole world today turns to it to search and know about things; and the results that are ranked first, that appear in the initial pages of the search result, are often believed to be the ultimate truth.

Image Source: Google

New Delhi: A Google data centre in the US.

Leaving alone all the economical and commercial effects and even the political effects, lets discuss on how the “all-knowing, all-providing” Google can influence elections in a country and if so, on their power to manipulate them.

Studies conducted in recent years clearly indicate that the Alphabet Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections— to manipulate opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had.

The social influence that it can exert on population through its algorithm-based search results is massive and has been academically termed as the “Search Engine manipulation effect” – and it turns out that it is the largest behavioural influence that has ever discovered.

According to a large scale research conducted on the behalf of the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, Google can easily shift the voting preferences of neutral voters by 20 percent and even up to 80 percent in some demography — and virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated.

20 percent is a huge number. A number large enough to flip an entire election in one way or the other. In the United States, half of their presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election was won by a mere margin of 3.9 percent— and all these numbers are well within Google’s control.

Image Source: IANS

Google.

All that matters here is the search engine rankings and results. Google themselves reveal that they adjust their algorithm almost 600 times a year, but the process is kept a secret. Thus most definitely—depending on how Google employees choose to adjust numeric weightings in the search algorithm the search rankings change. The rankings have a significance influence on the population.

When the rankings change, it can generate further search activity which increases the ranking again and it finally can turn into an avalanche. Does it affect voter perception? Meet “Search Engine Manipulation Effect” !!

Search Engine Manipulation Effect

During the 2016 American presidential elections, Donald trump managed to stay atop all other candidates in online search activity throughout the month long election process. Did this activity push him higher in search rankings, and did the higher rankings in turn bring him more support and consequentially the final victory? Remember the avalanche effect we discussed above. Now let’s go deeper into the research observations.

This comprehensive study includes results from five experiments conducted across the United States and India with more than 4,500 participants.

Image Source: Xinhua/Matti Matikainen/IANS

HELSINKI, July 15, 2018 - U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump arrive in Helsinki, Finland, on July 15, 2018. Donald Trump will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.

In the basic experiment, participants were divided into three groups and each group were given search rankings that favored one of Candidate A, Candidate B or neither candidate.

The participants were then introduced to descriptions of each candidate and were then asked of their opinion of who they liked and trusted and whom they would vote for. The results were noted.

Same results, different ranking: Next they were allowed to conduct online research on the candidates using a Google-like search engine we created called Kadoodle, for fifteen minutes. Each group were exposed to the same 30 search results—all real search results from real web pages of a past election. But in each group the order in which the results appeared changed. In the first group the results were ranked favouring Candidate A while the other group were shown results ranked in favour of candidate B.

They were permitted to browse freely on any result or shift between any of five different results pages, just as one can do in Google’s search engine.

When the participants were done searching, the same questions about their preferences and whom they would vote for were asked as was in the beginning.

On all measures, the opinions had clearly shifted in the direction of the candidate who was favored in the rankings. The first group with candidate A, second with B and so on. Trust, liking, voting preferences all shifted as predicted.

Image Source: IANS

Bengaluru: People raise anti-Trump slogans in Bengaluru, on Jan 21, 2017. Donald J. Trump has become the 45th President of the US.

The proportion of people whom the researchers could incline to any one candidate was between 37 and 63 percent - after just one search session!

Then imagine its effect when one views the rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months; the influence would exponentially and undoubtedly be larger.

Whether or not Google executives see it this way, the constantly changing algorithm of the search giant are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking, no doubt —and now it turns out that they influence our voting preferences too.

This effect is called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect. And it turns out to be one of the largest behavioural effects ever discovered.

SEME a serious threat to the democratic system of government anywhere around the world. Why? First reason is because SEME is virtually invisible as a form of social influence. Second is that its influence is so large. Third is that currently there are no specific regulations anywhere in the world that would prevent anyone from using or abusing this technique. And when it comes to this area, the omnipotence of Google, a private enterprise, as the only player in the game makes it even the more dangerous.

2014 LOK SABHA ELECTIONS - INDIA

Image Source: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS

BJP workers celebrate party's performance in 2014 Lok Sabha Elections in Kolkata on May 16, 2014.

More alarming were the results observed during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The study was conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters throughout India.

Do note that we are talking about a volume as large as 800 million eligible voters and 480 million votes being ultimately cast in the elections. Also to be noted is that these real voters are highly familiar with the candidates as they are already being bombarded with campaign rhetoric every day – as flexes, posters, campaign meets and so on. And also this is the actual case with real voters during an actual electoral campaign – in the case of the largest democratic election in the world - India.

Google’s own daily data on election-related search activity (subsequently removed from the Internet, but not before the researches and their colleagues downloaded the pages) showed that Narendra Modi, the ultimate winner, outscored his rivals in search activity by more than 25 percent for sixty-one consecutive days till the final day of the election.

Image Source: Robert Epstein

Google scores prior to close of 2014 Indian Elections

Results showed that search rankings during the run-up period to the elections could actually influence the voter mind-set and could boost the inclination towards one candidate by more than 20 percent. In some demographic groups, it went as high as more than 60 percent, mostly in the metros!!

Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google charts are a much better prediction tool of the results than any kind of exit-poll.

What if the high volume of search activity have been generated by higher search rankings for Modi. We remember those times when the social media was flooded with reports telling how Narendra Modi was the most searched Indian and so on.

Image Source: IANS

Scenes from assembly by-elections held at Nalhati in West Bengals Birbhum district Saturday.

Who decides the search rankings? We know that it’s Google and its endlessly changing algorithms – an algorithm that changes 600 times a year! Thus most definitely—depending on how Google employees choose to adjust numeric weightings in the search algorithm the search rankings change.

Thus the last remaining question is: Will Google do it? Or have they already done it?

We can cite at least three credible scenarios under which Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide. Such a manipulation can arise with or without the knowledge of their leaders.

Find out about the three scenarios and its impending influence on the upcoming Indian Parliament elections in the second part of this article: UPCOMING ELECTIONS AND THE THREE POSSIBILITIES!

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