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The Search Engine Manipulation Effect: Researchers Show How Google Can Manipulate The 2016 Elections To Its Liking

1 September 2015, 10:04 am EDT By Menchie Mendoza Tech Times
Research shows that Google has a huge capacity to manipulate search rankings by simply conducting minor tweaks to its algorithms. This ability allows the company to have a major impact in the 2016 presidential elections.  ( Justin Sullivan | Getty Images )

Google has the power to make or break a brand, website and even a political candidate using its huge ability to manipulate the rankings on its search page.

The finding was revealed by researchers at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT), who say that the search giant has the capacity to control the elections in 2016. The study, titled "Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME)," suggests that Google's influential algorithm can shift the opinions of undecided voters by as much as 20 percent or higher.

According to Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the AIBRT, Google has the unique power to swing election results in a manner that other technology companies of the same league cannot.

"Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google has amassed far more power to control elections - indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs - than any company in history has ever had," Epstein says.

In other words, voters may have a more positive opinion of a candidate when searching for that candidate online would deliver more positive results than negative as affected by Google's search algorithm.

The researchers argue that SEME is "a serious threat to the democratic system of government" because it is a form of social influence that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Furthermore, no regulations are in place to prevent Google from tweaking its algorithm to exert influence on the 2016 Presidential elections.

Google on its part denies the argument, saying that its algorithm is not really designed to deliver results in a manipulative way.

"Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google's approach to search from the very beginning," Google says.

With the proliferation of mobile devices, cable television and the Internet, there are now more ways than ever to influence present-day voters. However, as more and more people conduct searches about the candidates online, SEME has a huge chance of becoming a powerful form of influence.

In the U.S., over 75 percent of Internet searches are conducted on Google. This is even bigger in other countries where it's believed to reach as much as 90 percent. If Google favors one candidate over the other, it may be impossible to counteract such influence.

"The only way to protect people from biased search rankings is to break the trust Google has worked so hard to build," says Epstein. "When we deliberately mix rankings up, or when we display various kinds of alerts that identify bias, we can suppress SEME to some extent."

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