Probably not a single one of you reading this article has never “googled.” We usually need to google because there is far too much information available online and we need help to search through it all to find what’s relevant. Google connects curious people to relative information, and they do it better than anyone else. Yet most of us never consider how much power Google has over us when we consistently rely on one company to get information.
Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. If you google “weather,” the results probably won’t change the way you think about anything other than your plans for Saturday afternoon. However, if you were to google “Carly Fiorina,” for example, recent studies show the results may actually change the way you vote.
As Politico reports, their new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters. In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session. The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger.
In our basic experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups in which search rankings favored either Candidate A, Candidate B or neither candidate. Participants were given brief descriptions of each candidate and then asked how much they liked and trusted each candidate and whom they would vote for. Then they were allowed up to 15 minutes to conduct online research on the candidates using a Google-like search engine we created called Kadoodle.
Each group had access to the same 30 search results—all real search results linking to real web pages from a past election. Only the ordering of the results differed in the three groups. People could click freely on any result or shift between any of five different results pages, just as one can on Google’s search engine.
The trick Google can play at any time is not one where they invent inaccurate information — that would be far less effective! Google only needs to rearrange the order of search results so favored candidates receive better treatment. In addition, if you were to Google “Carly Fiorina,” you’d find the helpful “In the news” area high in the results where Google’s news team has already arranged relevant news stories for you to read about the presidential candidate.
Some stories will be positive, some negative, and probably all will be there. Google’s subtle, but powerful influence is in choosing which few stories come up first and because we rely on Google, we see what we’re supposed to see. It’s important to note that switching to Bing, Yahoo, or another search engine will not help this problem because all online search engines have algorithms and have the same abilities to influence you.
The solution is not to stop using Google, but instead to use Google more. By doing more of your own research and looking deep into the search results, googlers like you and I can continue to get the best information fast and with depth.
All the information is there; if it weren’t, we’d never trust Google in the first place! Google is a company with a world-changing tool, a tool that, like any other tool, can be used for good or evil. Use Google for good by using all of it: by reading deep into search results and by remaining skeptical of anything you read online.
As the world increasingly relies on the internet to store and receive information, it’s critical the process remains neutral and free from coercion. Keep skeptical, but keep googling!
[Note: This article was written by Austin Cantrell]