In one of his more outlandish pronouncements during last week’s never-ending impeachment managers’ Opening Argument in the Senate trial of President Donald Trump, Rep. Adam Schiff declared it vital that the President be found guilty and removed from office right now because he has shown himself to be an electoral “cheater.” As seen through the hate-colored lenses by which Schiff and his Democrat Party view the political landscape, if Trump remains in office November’s election results cannot possibly be trusted.
While voters clearly have reason to be concerned about vote manipulation, it is not Donald Trump who should worry us; it is Google.
“Search engine manipulation effect” (SEME) has been familiar to behavioralists for several years. It is the process of manipulating internet users’ preferences through deliberate but subtle – more precisely, surreptitious – algorithmic changes in search engine preference rankings. One way to achieve this effect is through Google’s “autocomplete function,” which directs users’ searches based on secret algorithms and user history.
The autocomplete function used by internet search engines completes a search term or phrase being entered by a user before the user deliberately completes it himself or herself. In this way, the search engine interposes its search preferences for those of the user in such manner that the user is not consciously aware of such manipulation. While the vast majority of instances in which a search engine engages autocomplete are those in which the user is simply searching for a factual term or phrase (e.g., “the Bill of Rights was ratified in what year?”), there is far more room for the search engine to subjectively direct a user when the query is more open-ended or includes a hot-button political term or name of a candidate.
Extensive research by Robert Epstein, a self-described center-left supporter of Hillary Clinton, established that search algorithms utilized by Google had “suppressed negative autocomplete search results relating to Hillary Clinton.” This was described in a December 2016 article in The Guardian, but more recently Epstein testified last July before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution chaired by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, that “[i]n 2016, biased search results generated by Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that gave at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton.”
Epstein went on to testify that, “biased search results can easily produce shifts in the opinions and voting preference of undecided voters by 20 percent or more – up to 80 percent in some demographic groups.” Despite assurances in 2016 from Google that its use of algorithmic-based autocomplete processes are unbiased and designed simply to “prevent offensive terms, like porn and hate speech, from appearing” in a user’s inquiry, Epstein testified that “Google employees deliberately engineer” such processes “to change people’s thinking.”
Epstein also discussed the manner by which Google manipulated tens of millions of voters at all levels of government, through its selective “Go Vote” reminders; under the guise of performing a “public service.” He concluded his startling congressional testimony by noting that, “Google has likely been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide since at least 2015.”
Epstein did not limit his expert testimony to simply identifying the problem of search-engine voter manipulation; he suggested a remedy. He recommended the federal government address this grave and worsening problem not by censorship, which some in Congress have endorsed, but rather by declaring the “database [Google] uses to generate search results . . . to be a ‘public commons,’” accessible to other search platforms. This would prompt and promote competition in much the same way a similar move decades ago against AT&T, ushered in an era of phenomenal and innovative competition in telecommunications.
Whether those in Washington will listen to non-partisan experts like Epstein and do something to rein in the uncontrolled manipulation of voters by Google and other search engines, remains to be seen.
However, if attention continues to focus on the specious, anti-Trump scolding of Adam Schiff and the Democrat Party in the lead up to this November’s election, the more likely it becomes that Epstein’s dire warnings of massive voter manipulation by Google and other search engines will in fact take place – which is, after all, exactly what the Democrats want.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.