Psychologist Robert Epstein’s most recent research seems to indicate that search engines have the potential to profoundly influence voters without them noticing the impact. With a group of more than 1,800 study participants – all undecided voters in India – Epstein’s research team was able to shift votes by an average of 12.5 percent to favored candidates by deliberating altering their rankings in search results. There were also increases in the likelihood of voting and in measurements of trust for the preferred candidates, and there were decreases in the willingness to support rivals. Fewer than 1 of every 100 participants, meanwhile, detected the manipulation in the results. “It confirms that in a real election, you can really shift voter preferences really dramatically,” said Epstein, now a senior research psychologist for the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, a non-profit group based in California, which conducted the study.
Skeptics point out that voters also have other information sources beyond what search engines provide and are swayed by other factors, such as party allegiances, potent issues and ethnic and religious affiliations. The study also recruited undecided voters as subjects and asked them to use deliberately altered rankings in search engines to query information on the major candidates. No matter whether these results can be validated or not, they are a good reminder that we all don’t get the same search results for the same query. What we get is manipulated by Google, for example, to reflect other searches we have done, our political and religious leanings as indicated by those searches and other factors that allow Google to present us with what it thinks we want rather than a wider view of a topic or issue. We all need to remember that how we search the world online is being manipulated by algorithms and that we are not being presented the wider picture necessarily without doing more digging on our own.