May 14, 2014 by Darius
A new study based on India’s recently concluded elections found that fake search engine results can dramatically skew voting preferences – more than enough to tip the balance of close elections.
The study done by a prominent American psychologist was fairly simple: undecided Indian voters were told to search online about the major Indian candidates: Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, and Narendra Modi. But the results were rigged: each voter was assigned to a group where the results favored one of the candidates by returning only links favorable to that candidate as the top results. (How many people really click through to the second or third or fourth page of search results?) The rigged results increased support for Rahul Gandhi by 26.5%, Kejriwal by 11.3%, and Modi by 9.1%. That’s more than enough to swing most elections.
Of course, just because a search engine like Google could rig search results to influence elections doesn’t mean it will. In fact, other studies have examined Google’s record and found that it has standardized its display of results to avoid such bias. But that doesn’t mean a different search engine in the US or another country, or a current search engine at some point in the future, could not do so. Moreover, according to The Washington Post, in the US at least, a search engine’s decision about how to return results is most likely protected speech under the First Amendment, akin to an editor’s decision about what to put on the front page of a newspaper. (Source: “A Google Effect on Elections?,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2014, p.A10, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/05/12/research-in-india-suggests-google-search-results-can-influence-an-election/)
Either way, the study shows how easy it can be to manipulate, all but invisibly, preferences on something as central as choosing the next leader. Which is very disturbing, especially given that campaigns in the US, India, and elsewhere have demonstrated time and again that if something shady can be done to influence the outcome, it will be done.