Can Search Results Swing an Election?

Search engines are one of the major ways that people get information. In the digital world, consumers reply upon search to manage the wealth of online information. New research analyzing the Indian elections raises interesting questions regarding whether page ranks can influence voter choices.

Search Engine Results and the Indian Election

Psychologist Richard Epstein and his colleagues at the American Institute for Behavior Research and Technology intentionally manipulated the preferences of undecided voters in India. Participants who had not yet voted were asked to research information on the leading candidates: Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, and Arvind Kejrwiwal.  But the results were deliberately manipulated.  The undecided voters were divided into three groups and shown links that favored the major candidates.  The biased page rankings had a dramatic effect.  Voters who were exposed to results promoting a particular candidate were about 12 percent more likely to report they favored that candidate.  The authors report that 99.3 percent of participants were unaware of the manipulation.

Reason for Skepticism

This experiment is intriguing because it took advantage of an actual election in India.  However, there are reasons to take the results with caution.  The authors assume an equally strong effect size for every undecided voter.  Not all voters rely on search engines to gather information about candidates before voting. 

A takeaway from this study is that search engines may promote the electoral chances of popular front runners and therefore make it difficult for obscure second tier candidates to gain a political foothold.  But, in a sense this is old news.  Media outlets have long had biased coverage and publicly endorsed candidates.  In the end, democracies rely on their citizens to make their own decisions at the ballot box.