After reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry,” I was skeptical that Google wielded as much power in our society as she claimed it did. While listening to others’ comments in class regarding the disappearance of the search giant and the effect(s) it would have on our political system, my skepticism only grew. “Surely Americans wouldn’t be helpless in an election without Google?” I asked myself. Elections existed centuries before Google was even conceived, so of course, I thought, our political system could continue on without it. However, after doing further research in class, I began to realize the presence and profound impact Google has on our elections. “Don’t be evil” is Google’s unofficial company motto. But how would our elections and democracy be impacted if they didn’t abide by this?
The fact that Google manipulates search results is a matter of record. According to Vaidhyanathan, advertisers can pay and outbid others to ensure their pages rank higher than competitors. This kind of manipulation by third parties used to be far more prevalent a few years back. However, because so many companies and individuals were manipulating the results, Google made changes that now make it very difficult for anyone to engage in this practice, except Google.
So the question we now ask ourselves is: why would Google want to do this? Google is a major, multi-billion corporation. It has enormous market share in search and constantly faces threats of antitrust suits and privacy law violations. The company now spends more in lobbying than Goldman Sachs, has set up its own political action committee, and makes financial contributions to candidates. Google states that it’s political spending decisions are based “exclusively on what’s best for Google and an open Internet.” They have to look after their own corporate interests, and showing favoritism to preferred candidates — who align with the company’s beliefs — wouldn’t be an unreasonable thought to have.
Research by Robert Epstein, a UC San Diego professor, psychologist, and Harvard scholar, found that search engines, like Google, have the potential to influence voters without them noticing the impact. Epstein came up with a term for this: Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME). In India’s 2014 national election, Epstein and his research team was able to shift votes by 1,800 study participants by an average of 12.5 percent to favored candidates. They accomplished this by deliberately altering the candidates’ rankings in search results. The study also found increases in the likelihood of voting and trust for preferred candidates. Less than 18 people in the study were able to detect the manipulation in the results.
Many criticized this study, because they claimed voters have access to other forms of information such as religious beliefs, party affiliations and personal beliefs. Others have said the company would not willfully do that due to the backlash that would come from its users if their actions were ever discovered. Google responded to Epstein’s research by saying, “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”
Panagiotis Metaxas, a computer science professor at Wellesley College, studied how Google displayed search results in national elections going back to 2008. His results showed the company is well aware of the potential for creating bias among voters but avoids that by displaying links to Wikipedia and candidate’s own website first in search results. However, Mataxas said, “Humans are very manipulable. … Advertisement is really the science of doing that.”
Google is a gatekeeper, with the ability to decide what you can easily find and can easily read, and what you cannot. Some legal scholars contend that search engine rankings are covered under the First Amendment’s free speech protections. Google argues the ordering of its search results, and what it chooses to promote, are only expressing their corporate opinion. It believes that it’s no longer an intermediary in the internet, but a publisher. Therefore, Google argues, the order of its search results should be protected under the first amendment rights given to all publishers.
Research indicates that it is entirely possible that Google to influence an election. However, so far, they haven’t, at least to everyone’s knowledge. What happens if Google’s corporate leaderships changes and no longer believes in being fair? This is important to remember going forward into the future when our dependence on the company and its many services is sure to only increase. Google’s decisions are made by humans, not computers. Humans that have biases and agendas. This doesn’t make them evil, only human.