Search engines can shift a “50/50 split split among people who are undecided on an issue to a 90/10 split without people’s awareness
The lead author of the study, Dr. Robert Epstein, has previously conducted research into what he calls the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME). This research showed that the manipulation of results pages in search engines can shift the voting preferences of undecideds by anywhere between 20 and 80 percent, depending on the demographic.
His latest research looks at how search engines can affect voters by suggesting negative or positive search terms when a political candidate’s name is entered into the search bar. Dr. Epstein’s research found that when negative search terms are suggested for a candidate, it can have a dramatic effect on voter opinion.
From the study:
The voting preferences of participants who saw no search suggestions shifted toward the favored candidate by 37.1%. The voting preferences of participants in the search suggestion groups who saw only positive search suggestions shifted similarly (35.6%). However, the voting preferences of participants who saw three positive search suggestions and one negative search suggestion barely shifted (1.8%); this occurred because the negative search suggestion attracted more than 40% of the clicks (negativity bias). In other words, a single negative search suggestion can impact opinions dramatically. Participants who were shown four negative suggestions (and no positives) shifted away from the candidate shown in the search bar (-43.4%).
The researchers conclude that by using this method of manipulation, search engines can shift a “50/50 split split among people who are undecided on an issue to a 90/10 split without people’s awareness and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to follow.”