As if Google's email, calendar, and maps services didn't run my life already, here's another way the search company might influence what I do: A new study has found that undecided voters are more likely to say they'll choose a political candidate after they see websites about that candidate appear among the first hits in a list of search-engine results.
In experiments with a hypothetical election, the effect was large, causing 36 percent or more of undecided voters to switch votes after seeing one candidate or another appear in top results. In a real-world election, where most of the study volunteers were already aware of the candidates, the effect was smaller, but still significant: about 11 percent. The study's scientists, a pair from the non-profit American Institute of Behavioral Research and Technology in California, previously presented these results at a conference last year. On Tuesday, they published a peer-reviewed paper about their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This study's results suggest search-engine algorithms could have unwanted effects.
This is the first study to find that search-engine rankings affect how people vote. To ensure the effect is real, researchers will need to conduct other experiments and check if the results sync up. If they do, the study will be sure to prompt some soul-searching in democracies. The obvious problem is that somebody could try to influence election results at a search engine, although technology companies should want to guard against that, to maintain consumer trust. But even without sabotage, this study's results suggest search-engine algorithms could have unwanted effects. For example, it's known that people tend only to click on the first few results from a search. If an algorithm ranks websites in part by how many people visit them, this tendency could become a feedback loop that keeps certain sites up top—and influences voters unduly.
To conduct the study, scientists asked volunteers to "research" political candidates using a fictional search engine. Every volunteer received the same 30 webpages in their results, but some volunteers got an unbiased list, while others received results where the top hits were all for one candidate or another. (Sometimes the researchers threw a second candidate's website into the third or fourth slot, so the bias wouldn't be so obvious. The effect still worked.) The researchers ran the study with more than 2,000 Americans, asking them to choose among Australian prime minister candidates that almost none of the volunteers knew about beforehand—this was the "hypothetical" election. The researchers also ran the study among more than 2,000 undecided voters during an election in India to fill a lower parliamentary house. That was the real-world election.
In many ways, the Internet—and the search engines that help us navigate it—has opened up the world. The Web has allowed people to come in contact with groups they wouldn't have otherwise, and to become acquainted with places they've never visited. But it's important to be aware that the Internet closes worlds, too, whether by creating opinion bubbles, or simply by ranking certain search results above others.
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