Can Google Influence an Election?

Google is a gatekeeper, with the ability to decide what you can easily find and what you cannot. This is not the same as book burning and not as blatant as censorship, but it may be more dangerous simply because most of us do not know that it is occurring.
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Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012 in New York, where Motorola introduced three new smartphones, the first since it became a a part of Google. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012 in New York, where Motorola introduced three new smartphones, the first since it became a a part of Google. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Introduction: Google Can Influence Public Opinion
We know from prior research that Google can influence public opinion on at least some important social and political issues, simply by affecting what is returned by search queries, the order in which results are presented, and the text that accompanies each result that is returned. And now it appears that they actually are attempting to manipulate public opinion in the midst of a national presidential election.

Robert Enderle's article on the United States of Google observes a heavily positive weighting given to favorable articles on President Obama, and a correspondingly negative bias in the treatment of articles for Governor Romney.

Given the power of search, and given Google's enormous market share in search, one is driven to question if manipulating public opinion in this way would represent a fundamental abuse of power. Given Google's stated policy of neutrality and lack of bias in organic search, one is driven to question if this might be an abuse of trust, or might represent a degree of deception that could indeed justify an FTC investigation. Finally, if Google really can and does influence what we can find, does this represent a novel and subtle form of abridgement of our first amendment rights? That is, if Google can influence what we hear, does that impinge upon our rights not only to speak, but to hear and to be heard?

Google argues that the ordering of its search results, and what it chooses to promote or to downplay through that ordering, are only expressing its corporate opinions. They argue that this is analogous to the ways in which a newspaper expresses its opinion through its editorials and through its choice of what to cover in its stories and where to place each individual story; see, for example, Search King, Inc. v. Google, in which Google prevailed using this argument. Google's position on its core business has been updated to make the argument that it is not merely an intermediary or interconnector; Google now argues that it is fundamentally a publisher, and as such is protected by the first amendment rights given to all publishers.

We argue that Google does indeed have the same rights as any other corporation, and it can state its opinions publically, employ lobbyists in record numbers, and make financial contributions to candidates. Google states that "Google's political spending decisions are based exclusively on what's best for Google and an open Internet," which indeed is what we would expect from any large company protecting its shareholders' interests. Google has ample mechanisms for expressing, advancing, and protecting its corporate interests, as does any other large and well funded corporation.

We will argue below that Google's business is fundamentally different from that of a publisher. Google does not need the rights of a newspaper publisher, nor is it entitled to those rights. Moreover, granting Google those rights would be harmful to core values of American participatory democracy.

Google Needs to Be Fair and It Is Not
Google claims to be above bias. With Google's solid reputation and generally unbiased rankings most of the time, occasional deviations from fairness to advance special concerns of the firm could go undetected, and thus could enormously affect voters' perceptions of candidates and events. Potentially, this could profoundly influence voters' behavior and could alter the outcomes of close elections.

There is much evidence to suggest that Google's claimed fairness is often sacrificed to business objectives. Foundem's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, documents Google's history of placing its own products ahead of those of competitors in organic search. Paid search, also called pay-per-click advertising (PPC), is the process whereby companies improve their visibility by purchasing keywords so that they show up at the top of the page as sponsored links or on the side as ads; most users know that companies pay to improve their position in paid search. In contrast, organic search is supposedly free from manipulation. And yet, manipulation of organic search has been well-documented. This practice has been further described by Foundem's CEO. A former Google senior executive and corporate spokesperson acknowledged and defended the practice of promoting their own products as "only fair," even while Google alleges the absence of bias.

In this paper we do not consider whether Google's practices of self-serving bias are good or bad business, or whether they do or do not constitute consumer harm; those are questions for another article. The key question here is whether this bias can have an impact on public opinion in a way that interferes with the public's ability to learn about candidates, and that interferes with candidates' ability to present themselves to voters. This goes beyond theoretical issues of fairness, and could interfere with the informed electorate so essential to the functioning of our democracy. Our research suggests that Google can indeed abridge the public's ability to become and remain fully informed, by limiting the public's ability to hear what Google does not want heard. Likewise, our research suggests that Google can abridge candidates' ability to be heard, by essentially hiding messages that Google does not want heard.

Google's ability to manipulate public opinion is far greater than that of any single newspaper.

The Limited Power of Traditional Media
The direct manipulation of readers' opinion by any individual newspaper is now quite limited. Partly this is because there are so many competing newspapers and sources of print and online news. There is a wide diversity of news sources available, including local papers, national papers like the Times or the Wall Street Journal, and radio and television news, including a wide range of cable stations. And there is an ever-increasing collection of blogs, like the Huffington Post.

Direct manipulation by the press is also difficult in part because readers have learned to expect newspapers to have opinions and to express them. Indeed, confidence in the press has continued to decline for years. Academic research has for more than half a century documented the limited ability of the media to directly influence public opinion.

If the ability of any one news source to manipulate public opinion is limited, and the diversity of sources is enormous and growing, it is not surprising that the FCC has dropped the fairness doctrine. A newspaper or a television station is no longer required to provide equal coverage for opposing points of view on controversial matters.

Mostly, we have sufficient diversity of sources, and mostly the ability of any single traditional source to manipulate opinion is limited.

The Surprising Power of Search
But search is not a single traditional source of information, content, and opinion, in a universe of dozens, or hundreds, of competing alternatives. Search is not principally a source of content at all.

Search engines provide access to the vast universe of content, rather than providing their own content, and most of us use one search engine (single homing) rather than multiple search engines (multi-homing). We rely on several content sources to shape and inform our opinions, but we tend to use a single gatekeeper to provide access to these sources that shape our opinion. A trusted search engine can slant and limit our access to coverage without detection, especially if it does it infrequently, and does it only when the stakes for them are high enough to justify an occasional abuse of our trust.

Additionally, the power of search to alter public opinion is greater than the power of traditional media, because a search engine's manipulation is less expected and less visible:

•Newspaper readers know when they are being manipulated; a one sided report is obviously one sided -- searchers may not know that they are being manipulated.
•Newspaper readers can always find a second point of view, if it is obvious that they are being manipulated -- searchers are pretty much limited to what they can find with their preferred search engine. This is not true without limit of course, but it remains true unless the search engine's bias becomes so blatant that it makes it appear inferior and unreliable and drives users to switch search engines.

And the concentration of search engines is greater than the concentration in search:
•No single newspaper has market share comparable to Google's.
•Newspapers have substitutes, to a greater extent than search.

It should not be surprising that diversity of source, which is essential to debate in an informed democracy, can be trumped by dominance in search.

Moreover, elections are acknowledged to have special importance. Although the vast increase in alternative media and the vast increase in the number of ways a political candidate can get media coverage, has led to the demise of the fairness doctrine for most controversial issues covered by the media, the equal time rule does remain in effect for political candidates. Unlike other controversial subjects that the media cover, covering elections is held to a higher standard. Even if we were to acknowledge that Google can be viewed as a publisher, which we do not, coverage of elections must be held to a higher standard of fairness and a higher standard of balance than the coverage of other controversial issues.

Experimental Support for Arguments about the Power of Search
We are not saying that search engines have unlimited power to shape opinion, but their power to do so is real. Our previously published findings show that you cannot easily convince someone that health care is a basic right simply by altering placement of different stories, nor can you easily convince American readers that it is a good idea for Iran to possess nuclear weapons. Indeed, you cannot easily convince some that Obama's health care plan will be inexpensive; we found that both supporters and opponents of Obama's health care reform were convinced that reform would be quite expensive, and their opinions could not readily be altered.

On other issues opinions are more malleable, and this is where a slight manipulation of the opinion of undecided voters, in key swing states, can potentially influence the outcome of a national election. For example, while we were not able to alter subjects' beliefs about whether or not climate change had occurred in the past, we were able to alter subjects' trust in current climate change data, and thus were able to alter their beliefs concerning whether or not evidence indicated that human activities were causing climate change today.

Why you should really care
In this year's election, a few key swing states will determine who will be the next president of the United States. With the ability to manipulate voters even slightly, Google can affect the outcome of a national election. It does not really matter if you actually prefer the same candidates that they prefer, and it does not really matter if the outcome they produce is the same as the outcome you want; you should still be very afraid.

Google's ability to influence an election is scary because they have an agenda, they already have power, and they already have used their power. We should harbor no illusions about whether or not they are using influence for their own benefit, and indeed their website makes it clear that their influence is used to advance their own interests. Google already acts as if it is above the law. Indeed it may be above the law:

•The DOJ non-prosecution agreement in the drug smuggling case was frightening. It's hard to imagine Al Capone or Willie Hutton getting off without so much as a reprimand, if either of them simply agreed to return all the money they had stolen. And yet Google paid a fine equal to its illegal gains, in exchange for a non-prosecution agreement, which means exactly what it sounds like it means. Google returned the illegal revenues from years' of criminal activity, in exchange for the DOJ's sealing all the evidence, and in exchange for immunity from Federal prosecution.

•Google's Wi-Spy eavesdropping scandal likewise involved neither fines nor legal penalties for their criminal behavior; Google simply paid a small fine for obstruction of justice and the matter was dropped.

Google violated its consent decree on respecting users' online privacy almost immediately after signing it. It negotiated its fine down to absolutely minimal levels, and, again, escaped without criminal charges and with barely a reprimand. It accepted no responsibility for criminal behavior after its hacking of the Apple iPhone, complained about its fine, and offered no apology for violating a consent degree.

This Is Not Corporate Business As Usual!
Nothing like this has ever been seen before. This is not like a corporation donating millions of dollars to a super-PAC. This is not like a corporation paying lobbyists millions of dollars to influence individual members of Congress. Both of these are covered by the First Amendment, and by a recent Supreme Court decision that holds that corporations are virtual people, with first amendment rights of their own.

Google is a gatekeeper, with the ability to decide what you can easily find and can easily read, and what you cannot. This is not the same as book burning and not as blatant as censorship, but it may be more dangerous simply because most of us do not know that it is occurring. But it may be close enough to book burning and to censorship to affect the outcome of an election, and to subvert the functioning of the world's oldest democracy. It may be just enough to make the most powerful man on earth beholden to a single company. Things may not be as bad as Enderle suggests, and the United States of America may not be in danger of become a well-functioning subsidiary of the United States of Google. Google's behavior is a matter of public record, and both its power and its abuse of power are well-documented. No one should trust them or any other company with this much power. The future of the country should not depend on hoping that they will decide there is no further need to do evil.

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