Google search-result manipulation and, more recently, Google search autocomplete manipulation were just two techniques that Dr. Robert Epstein exposed in an earlier articles. His most recent article, written in cooperation with Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, covers a wider variety of mechanisms that may exist. Whether they do exist is debatable, but the key idea is that there would be no way to trace or legally regulate them, if they do exist.
For example, one such hypothetical technique could be implemented by Facebook, the world’s largest social-media network. It’s plausible that Facebook would send “go out and vote” reminders on election day. But what if not every US user gets this reminder? That could happen, the authors say, speculating that some voters could be conveniently left out. According to the article, it could add up to some 600,000 potential votes in favor of an opposing candidate, which is some half a percent of the US eligible-voter figure of 130 million. While one could argue that this is not a significant number, it should be noted that this technique is part of a larger scheme, also untraceable, and actually legal, under current US legislation.
The estimated impact of Google’s possible election-swaying techniques detailed in the earlier article is larger: Epstein and Edelman believe Google can shift up to 3.2 million votes by using autocomplete feature manipulation, and up to 10.4 million votes using a search results arrangement manipulation technique.
All of these potential machinations are legal and cannot be controlled, let alone detected, unless strict regulations are imposed on tech companies, which is unlikely, due to those companies’ close ties to the halls of power.
If speculation about possible manipulation techniques might smack of paranoia, it is much harder to deny the fact that Silicon Valley favors Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly, over the Republican candidate Donald Trump. It is known that donations from the tech sector to the Democrats exceed those to the GOP some 25 to 1.
The article also mentions that chief technology officers for both incumbent US President Barack Obama and Clinton are former Google employees. Google employees visited the White House over 420 times in the past eight years, as noted in an extensive investigative article by The Intercept that also points out, among other things, that some 250 people swapped their employment from Google to the White House, and vice versa.
And thanks to WikiLeaks and the Podesta emails, we now know for sure that Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, worked closely with the Clinton campaign.
Both Epstein and Edelman support Clinton, but regard freedom of information to be more important than the success of their preferred candidate. “What if, next time, Google and Facebook support a candidate who serves their needs more than the needs of society at large?” the authors ask.
There are two larger problems, apart from voter manipulation. First, as mentioned above, online techniques, including modifying matching algorithms for Tinder’s Swipe-the-Vote online service, are not fraud, and a work must be done where legislation meets tech. It’s Wild West for the tech giants right now.
Those techniques are mostly invisible to the user, especially since most people believe that search engines simply report impartial and neutral information. It could be seen as working now, but that might change, with deep, long-term repercussions. Should the big lie behind this concept be exposed, people will lose faith in freedom of information in the internet. The impact of such a realization will reshape the market of information, as even the most fair of services will have a tough time convincing the customer that they are who they say they are. It’s hard to tell how future presidential candidates (or other interested persons) will convince people who have lost faith in free, unbiased information. Will campaigns of the future become a reality TV show of cursing polemic and absurdity? That’s one bleak version.