Will the next US elections be arbitrated by Google? This is the very serious question raised by the psycho-sociologist Robert Epstein, former director of the famous journal Psychology Today. His article published in the magazine Politicoexplains, with supporting evidence, that Google's secret algorithm could put one candidate ahead at the expense of another. The analysis focuses on the upcoming U.S. elections, but could just as well apply to other elections in other countries.
Aa tribune of Robert Epstein, spotted by our conferees of theDigital Factorysounds like an alert: "Never before has a company had so much power to control opinions and beliefs... ». Google could change, without anyone realizing it, the voting intentions of 20 %s of undecided voters and even 80 %s in certain demographic groups.
To justify this caveat, the researcher conducted a lengthy study on the search engine manipulation effect, the "search engine manipulation effect". Search engine manipulation effect (SEME)". He says this is one of the most powerful behavioural effects ever discovered. What Epstein raises is akin to the chicken-and-egg problem. He wonders: if Donald Trump, for example, is at the top of the polls, is it an effect of the number of very frequent Google searches for his name, or is it because he is at the top of Google's search pages that he garners so much support? The answer is made more difficult by the fact that the search engine's algorithm is kept secret and is constantly changing. Google responds to the accusations by claiming that its role is limited to presenting "relevant" search results. Still, it is not impossible that the next President of the United States will be elected not by the effect of his speeches, his project or his television performances, but by Google's algorithmic orientations.
The real question is whether Google can remain neutral. Here we are in an interesting area of opacity. Indeed, if the media and advertising are, in almost all democratic countries, subject to regulation during elections, this is not the case for the practice of search engine optimization, the famous SEO (Search Engine Optimization) so popular with marketing people.
Epstein's study questions the recent case of elections in India. A controversial figure of the Hindu nationalist right, Narendra Modi became India's new Prime Minister last year after his party's landslide victory in the legislative elections. An analysis of the queries made on the search engine during this election period, day by day, shows without any doubt that Modi was constantly and considerably ahead of his two other opponents. (See the curves below). According to Epstein, this high volume of search activity could easily have been generated by a better ranking of Mord in Google's ranking algorithm.
More generally, Epstein leads us to observe that there is no regulation whatsoever on the Internet and social networks, which we know have an immense capacity to artificially raise topics in the news: the famous buzz phenomena for example or massive keyword buying. The case of Google is therefore not exclusive because it concerns all the practices that can be carried out on the Internet.
The question deserves to be asked even though we know that the search for objectivity, in general, is only a decoy. It is all the more worth asking if the effects of positioning in a search engine lead to behavioural effects as massive as Robert Epstein's study claims. However, most elections in Western countries are played with very small differences between candidates. In the end, it doesn't take much to tilt the electoral verdict one way or the other. This is a real problem of democracy which calls for citizen vigilance because the risk of imbalance between those who will have the means and the financial power to penetrate the mysteries of research robots and the others will gradually prove to be more and more important and less and less controllable.