With high-profile presidential and senatorial campaigns, voters are bombarded with so much information that it would be difficult for any one information source to tip the scales significantly, but as you go increasingly down ballot it becomes more and more likely that a voter will have to specifically seek out information on a candidate before voting. In those cases, it’s probable that that voter will simply turn to Google, which gives the search engine tremendous power in shaping that voter’s view on a particular candidate or issue. How much power? Well, according to one researcher who measured voter sentiment after showing several groups different search engine results, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where it could change an election outcome:
With a group of more than 1,800 study participants – all undecided voters in India — the 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, [Psychologist Robert Epstein] said. 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 …
… Each of the subjects was randomly assigned to a group favoring one of the candidates. The top 10 links Kadoodle produced all featured Web pages favoring that candidate; favorable links to the other two candidates, meanwhile, fell to the bottom of the search results. After viewing the search results, typically for 10 or 11 minutes, the subjects were queried on their voting preferences.
Among the group shown pro-Gandhi rankings, his support increased by 26.5 percent. For Kejriwal, the increase was 11.3 percent, for Modi 9.1 percent. (Each experimental group was the same size, in part to minimize any potential effect on the election itself).
The article notes that search engines have an incentive not to skewer results, but the campaigns themselves are under no such obligation. Through the purchase of Adwords and the use of crafty SEO strategies, you can easily imagine scenarios in which a candidate pushes positive information on himself or negative stories on his opponent. In fact, you don’t need to imagine that scenario, because campaigns are already spending millions of dollars on search engine advertising every election cycle.