Research (and common sense) tells us that search engine rankings dramatically impact our lives, influencing what we buy, what we want, and how we act. People are totally sucked in by the organized list of results. Eye-tracking studies show that people scan search engine results and then fixate on the highest results, even when lower-ranked results are more relevant. The explanation: we are sheeple who trust search engine companies to rank results fairly according to relevancy.
The implications of this are vast. You may, for example, accidentally purchase an X-Box when you are showing off your Apple Watch or attempt to embroider your own Tinkerbell throw pillow.
But, what if internet search results were actually impacting things like elections? Well, what if no longer, because Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology have found that, in fact, internet search results DO impact elections. Which, regrettably, is something anyone who’s put Rick Santorum’s name into the almighty Google may have already realized.
While the study is alarming, it may have more significance for the people of the world that regulate things like campaign spending, because the authors conclude by arguing that “…candidates normally have equal access to voters…”1
Except they don’t. In the US candidates who have the most money or have enough popularity to earn media time have access to the voters. The difference with search engine rankings is that the manipulation could be overt. Owners of search engine companies could manipulate the rankings to favor candidates or parties, with few checks and balances.
I don’t disagree that it is a little disturbing to consider the implications of search engine companies biasing results in favor of certain candidates, but this issue far surpasses the limited conceptualization put forward by the authors of this paper. The paper talks about the issue that search engines reflect the popularity of sites, by incorporating it in rankings, and talks about masking that effect, but the authors don’t see that masking as a form of bias in and of itself – treating politics differently from everything else on the internet. Furthermore, your search results are already biased, based on what you have searched for in the past. For example, when your intrepid reporter enters “Minneapolis Candidates” into the Google, the third result I see: Minnesota DFL. That’s not because the DFL is so freakin’ popular. It’s because I’m a liberal pinko commie, and my search history confirms that bias.
See, that’s the thing, we don’t need to invoke evil-overlord search engine owner’s conspiracy to take over the world. We’ve already ceded our desire for objective results to tailored results that fit into our own personal world view because it’s way more convenient for us to let Google do our thinking for us. It’s possible that we’ve missed the forest for the trees in this particular conversation.
Featured image courtesy of Search Engine Journal