Not only could Kadoodle sway the outcome of close elections, he says, it could do so in a way most voters would never notice.
Epstein, who had a public spat with Google last year, offers no evidence of actual evil acts by the company. Yet his exploration of Kadoodle — think of it as the equivalent of Evil Spock, complete with goatee — not only illuminates how search engines shape individual choices but asks whether the government should have a role in keeping this power in check.
“They have a tool far more powerful than an endorsement or a donation to affect the outcome,” Epstein said. “You have a tool for shaping government. . . . It’s a huge effect that’s basically undetectable.”
There is no reason to believe that Google would manipulate politically sensitive search results. The company depends on its reputation for presenting fair, useful links, and though that image has taken some hits in recent years with high-profile investigations in the United States and Europe, it would be far worse to get caught trying to distort search results for political ends.
Yet Epstein’s core finding — that a dominant search engine could alter perceptions of candidates in close elections — has substantial support. Given the wealth of information available about Internet users, a search engine could even tailor results for certain groups, based on location, age, income level, past searches, Web browsing history or other factors.
The voters least tuned in to other sources of information, such as news reports or campaign advertisements, would be most vulnerable. These are the same people who often end up in the crucial middle of American politics as coveted swing voters.
“Elections are won among low-information voters,” said Eli Pariser, former president of MoveOn.org and the author of “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.” “The ability to raise a negative story about a candidate to a voter . . . could be quite powerful.”
Even efforts to refine search algorithms, he said, can unintentionally affect what voters see on their results pages. A search engine that favorscertain news sources — based, for example, on the sophistication of the writing as measured by vocabulary or sentence length — might push to prominence links preferred by highly educated readers, helping the political party and ideas they support.
Epstein’s research is slated to be presented in Washington this spring at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. The Washington Post shared an advance copy of a five-page research summary with officials at Google. “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning,” the company said in a statement. “It would undermine people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”