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Giant tech companies like Facebook and Google could determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, simply by deciding what information the voters see.
It may seem like science fiction, but the possibility has been raised by multiple experts and media outlets in recent months – most recently in The Guardian newspaper this week.
The idea is somewhat simple: Americans spend an incredible amount of time on social media and the Internet, and any change in the algorithm of Facebook or Google could sway their opinions.
“America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished,” Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, wrote in a Politico column last year.
Research by Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson indicates that something called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect, or SME, could determine the outcome of elections.
“Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more – up to 80% in some demographic groups – with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated,” Epstein wrote.
How it Works
When you type a request into a search engine like Google, an algorithm program determines the results. Likewise, a Facebook algorithm determines what you see in your timeline.
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For example, the Google algorithm could be set to show mostly positive news about a candidate such as Hillary Clinton. Likewise, the algorithm could be set to show only negative news about Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
Epstein and Robertson say they have demonstrated that his effect is real in experiments.
“Our new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters,” Epstein wrote. “In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session. The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger.”
The effect already may have determined the outcome of a 2014 election in India.
“Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google decided the winner of the Indian election,” Epstein wrote. “ Google’s own daily data on election-related search activity (subsequently removed from the Internet, but not before my colleagues and I 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 before the final votes were cast.”
Facebook Employees Raise Possibility
On March 4 of this year, Facebook employees voted on a question to ask their boss, Mark Zuckerberg. The question: “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?” The question was reported by Gizmodo, and was apparently the fifth-most popular question posed to Zuckerberg.
“Facebook can promote or block any material that it wants,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told Gizmodo. “Facebook has the same First Amendment right as The New York Times. They can completely block Trump if they want. They can block him or promote him.”
The social network did carry out an experiment to see how it could impact voting in 2010. The idea was to get more people to vote in a congressional election and it apparently worked, according to a University of California-San Diego paper. Facebook has 1.59 billion users around the world.
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