It is known worldwide as, arguably, the best search engine in cybersphere, but Google, can actually swing the results of the US presidential elections, says Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.
"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," Epstein says in an op-ed published on politico.com on August 19, 2015.
Epstein said his position was based on the outcomes of an experiment he carried out with his his colleague, Ronald E. Robertson.
To cary out the experiment, "participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups in which search rankings favoured either Candidate A, Candidate B or neither candidate. Participants were given brief descriptions of each candidate and then asked how much they liked and trusted each candidate and whom they would vote for. Then they were allowed up to 15 minutes to conduct online research on the candidates using a Google-like search engine we created called Kadoodle."
"Each group had access to the same 30 search results--all real search results linking to real web pages from a past election. Only the ordering of the results differed in the three groups. People could click freely on any result or shift between any of five different results pages, just as one can on Google's search engine."
When the participants were done searching, they were asked those questions again. It was discovered that on all measures, opinions shifted in the direction of the candidate who was favoured in the rankings. Trust, liking and voting preferences all shifted predictably.
The research results also demonstrated "this shift with real voters during an actual electoral campaign--in an experiment conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters throughout India during the 2014 Lok Sabha election there--the largest democratic election in history, with more than 800 million eligible voters and 480 million votes ultimately cast."
Epstein further stated that given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power to "flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide."
He said that since half of presidential elections in the United States have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, the ability to decide the final outcome of a presidential election is "well within Google's control."
However, Google said the provision of "relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google's approach to search from the very beginning" and that tweaking its algorithm to swing votes in favour of a candidate "would undermine the people's trust in our results and company".
Epstein believed Google's statement was "meaningless". He said the provision of "relevant answers" to election-related questions does not rule out the possibility of favouring one candidate over another in search rankings.