Congress this week zeroed in on “fake news” and ads produced by Russians, but one expert contends this is a sideshow compared to the much more significant threat to American democracy — the awesome power of search engines.
“The attention being paid right now to advertising and fake news stories — this is a red herring,” said Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. “That’s not the kind of influence we should be worrying about.”
Epstein, who since 2013 has been researching the way Google selects and ranks websites based on search words entered by internet users, said the evidence is compelling that the search platform is biased in favor of Democratic candidates.
To measure the power of Google, Epstein and his group have run a number of experiments in the United States and India, in which undecided voters run searches for information about candidates. The elections and candidates were real, as were the results and links spit out by Google. The only difference is that researchers altered the order of search results for the test groups.
The results are nothing short of stunning, Epstein said. He said Google has the power to shift 20 percent of undecided voters to one candidate or another simply by controlling which information pops up in a search result. He estimated that Google now determines the outcome of about a quarter of national elections around the world.
And the insidious part, he added, is that almost none of the test subjects had any suspicion that the results they saw had been manipulated in any way.
“We don’t see the strings,” Epstein said. “We don’t see the puppet master. But we are certainly in their hands.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) raised concerns over the power of Google at a hearing Tuesday before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He cited his personal experience as a presidential candidate.
A 2015 study, Cruz said, analyzed Google search results of 16 contenders for the Democratic or Republican nominations. Searches returned five positive results about Democrat Hillary Clinton and one negative link. Sen. Bernie Sanders had nine positive results; none was negative.
President Donald Trump’s results had four positive stories and three negative. Cruz noted that his search results produced no positive stories.
Among all Democratic contenders, searches averaged seven favorable stories among the top 10 results. Republicans averaged only 5.9 positive stories.
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Facebook Under Fire
Facebook came under fire last year after it acknowledged that news stories appearing in users’ feeds were not the result of an automated system calculating the most popular sites but rather the choices made by company employees. Conservatives complained that those curators consistently downgraded conservative news sites, and the company promised to review its practices.
Cruz also noted that Twitter recently blocked a campaign launch video of Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Diane Black because of a negative reference to Planned Parenthood.
“It is disconcerting if … political positions become a lens through which American consumers consume news,” he said.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) put it more sharply. He told the company executives that their firms do good things. “But your power sometimes scares me,” he said.
The authors of the study Cruz referenced concluded that there were complicated reasons for the disparity between the search results for Republicans and Democrats. Candidates like Sanders, for instance, benefited from strong social media operations. Several of the results for the progressive senator from Vermont were his own campaign platforms.
“We didn’t find any evidence of manipulation on Google’s part,” said Sean Mussenden, a lecturer in digital media at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism and one of the study’s authors. “We were being more descriptive of what we found.”
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But even if Google employees were not intentionally rigging its algorithms to favor Democrats, the study urged the company to take steps to rein in how its search engine operates.
“I think we should be concerned about the role gatekeepers of information play,” Mussenden told LifeZette.
As with Google, Epstein said, Facebook has tremendous potential power. He cited research published in 2012 by Facebook, itself, pointing to the impact of get-out-the-vote messages. Facebook sent reminders to vote just before the 2010 election to 60 million users and boosted turnout by 340,000 compared to a control group that did not get the messages.
‘No One Can Stop It’
Accounting for the much higher number of people who participate in presidential elections, Epstein estimated that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could — with the push of a button — have delivered an additional 700,000 votes to Clinton simply by reminding her supporters to vote while ignoring Trump’s supporters.
Or, Epstein added, Facebook could have had an even bigger impact by sending messages over a period of months to Clinton supporters — but not Trump supporters — urging them to register to vote.
“No one can stop it, and there’s no record of it,” he said. “They’re the kind of influence we should be frightened about.”
For its part, Facebook claims neutrality. The company’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, testified at the hearing that within certain guidelines, “We do not in any way discriminate based on viewpoint or ideology.”
Epstein told LifeZette that as powerful as Facebook is, though, it pales next to the massive influence Google has by controlling what people read. He said half of clicks come from the top two search items, and 90 percent come from links on the first page of search results.
Next to that, Russia-generated tweets and Facebook posts seem like small potatoes, Epstein said.
“I don’t think it’s that many votes … Fake news stories and Facebook ads are traditional forms of influence,” he said. “They’re just like billboards.”
Not only did the ads and fake news stories make up such a tiny percentage of the political material distributed in 2016, but it can also be seen and countered with opposing messages, Epstein said.
But deciding which stories voters see and which ones they don’t gives Google influence that is “invisible and non-competitive,” he said.
“Not only can you not stop them — you can’t even see that they’re doing it,” he said.
Some senators at Tuesday’s hearing lectured the executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google for not doing enough to stop Russian interference in the election. But Epstein said that debate plays into their hands by obscuring the frightening influence their companies wield.
“These tech companies seem — I believe they are thrilled so much attention is being put on these issues,” he said. “They don’t want people paying attention to how much power they have.”
(photo credit, homepage images: Donald Trump, CC BY 2.0, by Marc Nozell / Senator Clinton, CC BY-SA 2.0, by lorie shaull ; photo credit, article images: Bernie Sanders, CC BY-SA 3.0, by Gage Skidmore)