Democracy at Risk: Manipulating Search Rankings Can Shift Voters’ Preferences Substantially Without Their Awareness
Robert Epstein & Ronald E. Robertson
American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology
In a double-blind controlled experiment,web pages and search engine results from an actual election were presented to three
groups of eligible voters. In two of the groups, rankings favored one candidate over the other. Preferences shifted dramatically toward favored candidates, with 75% of subjects showing no awareness of the manipulation. In a second experiment, voter preferences again shifted in the predicted direction, and the proportion of people who were unaware of the manipulation was increased by slightly altering the rankings to mask the favoritism. In a third experiment,a more aggressive mask was used to hide the manipulation, and no subjects showed any awareness of it, even though voter preferences still shifted in the predicted directions. We conclude (1) that the outcomes of real elections—especially tight races—can conceivably be determined by the strategic manipulation of search engine rankings and (2) that the manipulation can be accomplished without people being aware of it. We speculate that unregulated search engines could pose a serious threat to the democratic system of government.
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