Google search results can swing votes in elections

Press Trust of India Washington | Updated on May 13, 2014


Rankings biased in favour of a candidate can influence a voter’s decision

Altering Google search results can pose a real threat to democracy as this can influence voting preferences of undecided voters and swing a close election, according to a new study analysing the just concluded Lok Sabha polls.

The study suggests that Google has the power to fix elections “without anyone being the wiser”. This is possible because of the power that search rankings has on people’s opinions, researchers said.

Studies show that higher the rank, the more people trust the result, which is why companies are spending billions now to push their products higher. In the new study, participants were randomly assigned to groups in which search rankings favoured either AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, or BJP’s Narendra Modi. Real search rankings and Web pages were used, and people were asked to research all the candidates just as they would on Google. The only difference was the order in which the search results were displayed. In the study, conducted with more than 2,000 undecided voters throughout India, the researchers have shown that votes can easily be pushed towards one candidate or another by about 12 per cent — in some demographic groups double that — enough to determine the outcomes of many close races.

“This is a real threat to democracy,” said Robert Epstein, lead researcher in the study and Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology in California. “Of particular concern is the fact that 99 per cent of the people in our study seemed unaware that the search rankings they saw were biased. That means Google has the power to manipulate elections without anyone suspecting,” said Epstein.

Published on May 13, 2014

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