The power of the Internet is growing as it infiltrates more and more into our lives. The dependency we have on the web has grown exponentially, and the government has done little if anything to halt or slow the force of the Internet or Internet-based companies on which we rely every day. Sites such as Google and Facebook constantly shape the way we think, feel, and see the world on a daily basis, but when does this go to far? What kind of implications does this have on a democratic America?
Scholars and journalists have questioned the impact of such a powerful force on democratic institutions such as elections and partisanship, and have found that these sources have stronger implications than we might first think. Elections, in particular, require more information and often require citizens to actively seek information on their candidate. For this reason, search engines have the potential to play a significant role in affecting the outcome of elections for better or for worse.
In a study conducted by Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson, they found that search rankings based on the popularity of websites are likely influenced by voter preferences, which in turn can cause explosions of support for one candidate which could lead to voter preference being affected by search rank. Epstein and Robertson point out that search engines allow campaigns to have the ability to manipulate the outcomes of elections in ways that would be nearly undetectable. They also note that while campaign donations require money, search engine manipulation and campaign tactics are free.
Search engine fraud and pranks can also lead to impacted election results. “Google bombs” are a type of web spam that links words or phrases to linked web pages causing certain search phrases to register unrelated, or seemingly unrelated, content. A well known instance of this type of fraud was when the phrase “miserable failure” was linked with the websites of George W. Bush, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
In 2006 Google bombs were used to impact the 2006 election, but Google has since adjusted their algorithm to diffuse Google bombs by restricting the selection of top search results when searching for congressional candidate names. Google went on to close other loopholes that allowed for Google bombs, and by 2010 it proved impossible to launch any Google bomb campaigns. Some see Google’s halt to Google bombs as stifling to online opinion, but Google argues that they are simply trying to improve the quality of their search results. Frankly, it is hard to argue that a search result to the query of “miserable failure” would qualify as a quality search result.
These types of search result altering, both natural and intentional, both have the potential to significantly influence election results. As sites such as Twitter and Facebook evolve and campaigns continue to incorporate technology into their campaigns, the impact of search engines will become more of an ethical issue than simply one of quality search results across the board.
Epstein, Robert and Robertson, Ronald E. “Democracy at Risk: Manipulating Search Rankings Can Shift Voting Preferences Substantially Without Voter Awareness”. American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Web. 18 April 2013.
Goo, Sara Kehalani. “Google Moves to Disarm Search ‘Bombs'”. The Washington Post. 30 Jan. 2007. Web. 19 April 2013.
Metaxas, Panagiotis T and Mustafaraj, Eni. “Social Media and the Elections”. Policy Forum. 26 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 April 2013.
Timberg, Craig. “Could Google tilt a close election?”. The Washington Post. 29 March 2013. Web. 18 April 2013.