Bias For Sale: How Much and What Direction Do You Want?

Epstein and Robertson pitch it a little differently but that is the bottom line of: The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections.


Internet search rankings have a significant impact on consumer choices, mainly because users trust and choose higher-ranked results more than lower-ranked results. Given the apparent power of search rankings, we asked whether they could be manipulated to alter the preferences of undecided voters in democratic elections. Here we report the results of five relevant double-blind, randomized controlled experiments, using a total of 4,556 undecided voters representing diverse demographic characteristics of the voting populations of the United States and India. The fifth experiment is especially notable in that it was conducted with eligible voters throughout India in the midst of India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections just before the final votes were cast. The results of these experiments demonstrate that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) search ranking bias can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. We call this type of influence, which might be applicable to a variety of attitudes and beliefs, the search engine manipulation effect. Given that many elections are won by small margins, our results suggest that a search engine company has the power to influence the results of a substantial number of elections with impunity. The impact of such manipulations would be especially large in countries dominated by a single search engine company.

I’m not surprised by SEME (search engine manipulation effect).

Although I would probably be more neutral and say: Search Engine Impact on Voting.

Whether you consider one result or another as the result of “manipulation” is a matter of perspective. No search engine strives to delivery “false” information to users.

Gary Anthes in Search Engine Agendas, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 59 No. 4, pages 19-21, writes:

In the novel 1984, George Orwell imagines a society in which powerful but hidden forces subtly shape peoples’ perceptions of the truth. By changing words, the emphases put on them, and their presentation, the state is able to alter citizens’ beliefs and behaviors in ways of which they are unaware.

Now imagine today’s Internet search engines did just that kind of thing—that subtle biases in search engine results, introduced deliberately or accidentally, could tip elections unfairly toward one candidate or another, all without the knowledge of voters.

That may seem an unlikely scenario, but recent research suggests it is quite possible. Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson, researchers at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, conducted experiments that showed the sequence of results from politically oriented search queries can affect how users vote, especially among undecided voters, and biased rankings of search results usually go undetected by users. The outcomes of close elections could result from the deliberate tweaking of search algorithms by search engine companies, and such manipulation would be extremely difficult to detect, the experiments suggest.

Gary’s post is a good supplement to the original article, covering some of the volunteers who are ready to defend the rest of us from biased search results.

Or as I would put it, to inject their biases into search results as opposed to other biases they perceive as being present.

If you are more comfortable describing the search results you want presented as “fair and equitable,” etc., please do so but I prefer the honesty of naming biases as such.

Or as David Bowie once said:

Make your desired bias, direction, etc., a requirement and allow data scientists to get about the business of conveying it.

Certainly what “ethical” data scientists are doing at Google as they conspire with the US government and others to overthrow governments, play censor to fight “terrorists,” and undertake other questionable activities.

I object to some of Google’s current biases because I would have them be biased in a different direction.

Let’s sell your bias/perspective to users with a close eye on the bright line of the law.


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