Friday, August 21, 2015

In Google We Trust

While America reels from the shocking revelations concerning Subway Jared’s predilection for grade-school erotica and the unspeakable irony of Josh Duggar’s recent indiscretions, Google has officially surpassed democracy as the greatest force in American politics. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, recently published findings from a study of 4,500 undecided United States voters. Apparently, by displaying more favorable search results for particular candidate they could boost that candidate’s favorability ratings by up to 63%.

Given that the 2012 presidential election was decided by 3.9%, he believes that swinging the 2016 election (which is also expected to be close) would be well within the realm of possibility. This sort of large scale political dabbling is not without precedent. In the viciously contested 1876 presidential election, Western Union and the several members of the Associated Press utilized reliance on the telegraph system to disseminate misinformation.

In response to the study, Google issued a statement that rigging results to favor one view over another “would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company.” If there is one thing I enjoy, it is thoroughly-vetted yet meaningless public statements. Someone documented a scenario whereby Google could, theoretically, sway a Federal election and its response was to essentially say “people might not like that.” I have to get a job in PR. Can you imagine if that was the accepted standard?

Senator, how do you respond to accusations that you accepted money from ISIS to recruit pre-school children in your district?

Well. If I were guilty of such a thing, it would be inexcusable. No more questions!

That is not to say that Google would do such a thing and I am always leery of “undecided voter” studies. How do you find a group of people with enough of an interest in politics to take part in an uncompensated research study but not enough of interest to have already decided who they will vote for?

There is some truth to the fact that since Google still handles the majority of search traffic and someone might simply type in a candidate’s name and look at the title of the results; it is certainly possible to influence their views. When they say that they skewed some of the search results, I wonder how far they took it. There is a vast difference between the headline “Candidate A’s voting record may be cause for concern for some citizens with terminal illness” and “Is Candidate A pro-cancer?” I suppose that would have worked both ways. They may have tried “Candidate A finds charity work rewarding” against “Is Candidate A the protestant Mother Teresa?”

Even if enough people utilized Google search results to form their opinions in Federal elections, it would not be the worst outsourcing of independent human thought to the Internet. In 2012, I did some research on Google’s suggestions algorithm that was disturbing to say the least. We all better hope Skyrim has not become any more addictive since the last presidential election.

Taken to its extreme, perhaps Google would just cast votes for us. We could just hop on the Internet in November, type “Who will I vote for?” into the search box, and click I’m Feeling Lucky. Any votes cast through Yahoo and Bing would simply be disregarded since they must have originated from people who still have not figured out how to change the “default search provider” setting on their web browsers.

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