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How using search engines impacts voter decisions

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(David Trilling)

In 2012, a  study published in Nature revealed the results of an experiment conducted via Facebook in November of 2010: displaying the word “VOTE” in users’ news feeds along with information on polling locations–and in some cases displaying the profiles of Facebook friends who had already reported voting–increased the likelihood of those users going offline to cast ballots. But what happens if, as Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society suggests, Facebook only shows the “VOTE” image to users affiliated with certain political parties?  The power structures at play behind candidate-related content have a long history of influencing viewer opinion and being subject to regulation. However, the digital landscape is shifting at speeds that can outpace oversight, making it critical that voters understand the unseen systems influencing their behaviors.

In the case of search engines, online services such as Google, Yahoo and Bing help voters find information on political candidates. But how do they influence election results? Users scanning search query results click on links in fairly predictable patterns, giving special emphasis to results at the top of the list and on the first page. Companies spend billions of dollars on search optimization to capitalize on these user behavior patterns and push their website pages to the top of query results. This influences which links a user is most likely to click, which in turn affects their beliefs and behaviors around products, topics and issues.  Considering the increasing number of people who turn to the Internet to gain information about candidates, it is important to take into account how search engine outcomes can impact voter opinion and election results.

Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Roberston of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology sought to evaluate how search engine manipulation can influence reader opinions in political campaigns. In their 2015 study “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and its Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections,” Epstein and Robertson study people in the United States and India to determine which populations are most vulnerable to being influenced in this way.

The study’s findings include:

  • By manipulating search engine results to favor one candidate over another, voter preferences can be altered by 20 percent or more.
  • Certain demographics are more vulnerable to search engine manipulation effect (SEME) than others. Though the specific demographic of voters vulnerable to this effect varied in each of the five studies conducted by Epstein and Robertson, voters with little knowledge of the candidates or who were undecided in their political affiliation at the time of the study were especially influenced by it.
  • The transparency of search engine manipulation can vary so that the user lacks awareness of how the search engine results impact their consumption and perspective on the content presented.
  • Even users who expressed awareness of search engine manipulation were still influenced by how the search results were presented to them.

According to the authors, it is important to examine the power of SEME on voter outcome and especially to consider how its manipulation can be masked from the viewer and obscured from regulators. And, when search engines favor certain results over others, the results “might interact synergistically with the process by which voter preferences affect search rankings, thus creating a sort of digital bandwagon effect.” Since many people use search engines provided by a singular corporate entity, those companies hold large amounts of unregulated power that could determine election outcomes, especially as more voters turn to the Internet as their sole provider of news and current events.  The authors conclude that “unregulated election-related search rankings could pose a significant threat to the democratic system of government.”

Related Research: A 2014 study in the Journal of Information Technology and Politics uses data from a Texas opt-in poll to examine how users get their political and news information through tablet and smartphone news applications, search engines and online social media.

Keywords: search engine optimization, search engine manipulation, politics, voter opnion, campaign media, elections, public opinion, SEO

    Writer: | Last updated: January 21, 2016

    Citation: Epstein, Robert; Robertson, Ronald E. “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 2015. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1219828112.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the NPR All Tech Considered article titled "Google's New Search Algorithm Stokes Fears Of 'Mobilegeddon' "

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and its Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections"

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?