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Psychologist Finds Google Could Sway an Election with Search Manipulation

Research psychologist Richard Epstein has made a provocative and stunning discovery through a series of experiments manipulating search results: Google could sway an election without much notice.

According to stories in The Washington Post and PBS, Epstein’s hypothetical Kadoodle search engine found candidates fared far better when favorable links were promoted and unfavorable ones were demoted. Epstein’s core finding was that a dominant search engine, which is Google, could sway a close election. He told the Post:

“They have a tool far more powerful than an endorsement or a donation to affect the outcome,” Epstein said. “You have a tool for shaping government. . . . It’s a huge effect that’s basically undetectable.”

To PBS he added, “We’ve discovered that search engine rankings can be manipulated in ways that dramatically change voter preferences.”

For some time, FairSearch has been pointing out the very real perils of Google’s search manipulation practices, which harm Internet entrepreneurs every day. In January, the Federal Trade Commission took a pass on Google’s anti-competitive search bias practice though then FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz pointed out that “some evidence suggested that Google was trying to eliminate competition” in its search practices.

The European Commission has identified this practice, among others, as a potential abuse of Google’s dominance in Internet search and search advertising, and is talking with Google about its willingness to end this practice. Europe’s top antitrust regulator, Joaquín Almunia, has set his sights on fixing Google’s anti-competitive search bias. “My conviction is [Google] are diverting traffic,” he told the Financial Times in January 2013.

The most recent example of Google’s search bias is the sudden demotion or disappearance in Google search results of direct links to apps on Apple’s iOS platform (The Next Web, TechCrunch and MacRumors all recently reported on this change). The Next Web’s reporter summed it up best:

“It’s not that the search results Google is showing for these queries aren’t relevant per se, but in my experience direct iTunes links were definitely more prominent up until now, as they should be.

“What we’re getting now is a lot of links to reviews site and alternative app marketplaces such as Softonic and CNET/Download.com, YouTube videos, news items and images. Links to iTunes are often buried.”

So while Google could hypothetically steer a close election, in reality the search giant has no issue diverting search queries such as “Kindle iPad” to its own services. In other words, the threat to our political process is very real, yet theoretical, while manipulation of Google search results for anti-competitive reasons is reality that Internet companies and services live with every day.