One Nation, Under Google?
Google controls an 88.4% market share of the search engine industry in the United States. The runner-up? Bing, which has a 6.4% market share. While Google is the go-to search engine for most Americans, the methods Google uses to rank search results are prone to political bias.
Dr. Robert Epstein (a Democrat who supported Biden and Clinton), a Researcher at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, has expressed concerns about how Google manipulates votes and elections. Epstein submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, June 16, 2019, at 2:30 p.m. The testimony shared significant concerns with how Google impacts, interferes and manipulates elections through biased and partisan practices.
The key findings Dr. Epstein shared included:
- In 2016, biased search results generated by Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that gave at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton (whom I supported).”
- “On Election Day in 2018, the “Go Vote” reminder Google displayed on its home page gave one political party between 800,000 and 4.6 million more votes than it gave the other party.”
- “In the weeks leading up to the 2018 election, bias in Google’s search results may have shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes to the candidates of one political party (spread across hundreds of local and regional races). This number is based on data captured by my 2018 monitoring system, which preserved more than 47,000 election-related searches on Google, Bing, and Yahoo, along with the nearly 400,000 web pages to which the search results linked. Strong political bias toward one party was evident, once again, in Google searches (Epstein & Williams, 2019).”
- “My recent research demonstrates that Google’s “autocomplete” search suggestions can turn a 50/50 split among undecided voters into a 90/10 split without people’s awareness (http://bit.ly/2EcYnYI) (Epstein, Mohr, & Martinez, 2018). A growing body of evidence suggests that Google is manipulating people’s thinking and behavior from the very first character people type into the search box.”
- Google has likely been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide since at least 2015. This is because many races are very close and because Google’s persuasive technologies are very powerful (Epstein & Robertson, 2015a).
Epstein warned in July 2020 that “if these companies all support the same candidate – and that’s likely, needless to say – they will be able to shift upwards of 15 million votes to that candidate with no one knowing and without leaving a paper trail.”.
In an article Dr. Epstein dated January 2, 2019, he details how the Go Vote reminder benefited Democrats:
“To understand how this works, you need to look at demographics. As you’ll see, no matter how you cut this cake, Google’s “Go Vote” reminder generates more votes for Democrats than for Republicans. What’s more, the precise number of votes can be calculated in advance.”
Epstein identified the same Go Vote targeting by Google in 2020:
“In our election monitoring project this year, we recruited a politically-diverse group of 733 field agents in Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. Through their computers, we were able to preserve more than 400,000 ephemeral experiences that tech companies use to shift opinions and votes and that normally are lost forever. One of our most disturbing findings so far is that between Monday, October 26th (the day our system became fully operational) and Thursday, October 29th, only our liberal field agents received vote reminders on Google’s home page. Conservatives did not receive even a single vote reminder.This kind of targeting, if present nationwide, could shift millions of votes, in part because Google’s home page is seen 500 million times a day in the U.S. The good news is that it appears that we got Google to stop this manipulation four days before Election Day. On Thursday, October 29th, I sent materials about the monitoring project to Ebony Bowden, a reporter at the New York Post, who was writing a story about the project. I did so knowing that all nypost.com emails are shared with algorithms and employees at Google. Late night on the 29th, two notable things happened: First, Ms. Bowden’s article, which was about possible large-scale election rigging by Big Tech, was pulled by the Post. Second, Google’s targeted messaging stopped completely. From midnight on the 29th to the end of Election Day, all of our field agents have received the vote reminder. Because of the demographics of the people who use Google, this is still a vote manipulation, but it is far more benign than the extreme targeting we detected last week.”
There is prior precedent for communication companies intervening in American elections, as Epstein, in a piece for Politico, outlines three ways Google could change the outcome of elections:
“There are three credible scenarios under which Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide as you read this: First, there is the Western Union Scenario: Google’s executives decide which candidate is best for us—and for the company, of course—and they fiddle with search rankings accordingly. There is precedent in the United States for this kind of backroom king-making. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, was put into office in part because of strong support by Western Union. In the late 1800s, Western Union had a monopoly on communications in America, and just before the election of 1876, the company did its best to assure that only positive news stories about Hayes appeared in newspapers nationwide. It also shared all the telegrams sent by his opponent’s campaign staff with Hayes’s staff. Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to donate money to a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins. The technology guarantees the win, and the donation guarantees allegiance, which Google has certainly tapped in recent years with the Obama administration. Given Google’s strong ties to Democrats, there is reason to suspect that if Google or its employees intervene to favor their candidates, it will be to adjust the search algorithm to favor Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to Obama but only $37,000 to Romney. At least six top tech officials in the Obama administration, including Megan Smith, the country’s chief technology officer, are former Google employees. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, since Obama took office, Google representatives have visited the White House ten times as frequently as representatives from comparable companies—once a week, on average. Hillary Clinton clearly has Google’s support and is well aware of Google’s value in elections. In April of this year, she hired a top Google executive, Stephanie Hannon, to serve as her chief technology officer. I don’t have any reason to suspect Hannon would use her old connections to aid her candidate, but the fact that she—or any other individual with sufficient clout at Google —has the power to decide elections threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our electoral system, particularly in close elections.
This is, in any case, the most implausible scenario. What company would risk the public outrage and corporate punishment that would follow from being caught manipulating an election? Second, there is the Marius Milner Scenario: A rogue employee at Google who has sufficient password authority or hacking skills makes a few tweaks in the rankings (perhaps after receiving a text message from some old friend who now works on a campaign), and the deed is done. In 2010, when Google got caught sweeping up personal information from unprotected Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries using its Street View vehicles, the entire operation was blamed on one Google employee: oftware engineer Marius Milner. So they fired him, right?
Nope. He’s still there, and on LinkedIn he currently identifies his profession as “hacker.” If, somehow, you have gotten the impression that at least a few of Google’s 37,000 employees are every bit as smart as Milner and possess a certain mischievousness—well, you are probably right, which is why the rogue employee scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. And third—and this is the scariest possibility—there is the Algorithm Scenario: Under this scenario, all of Google’s employees are innocent little lambs, but the software is evil. Google’s search algorithm is pushing one candidate to the top of rankings because of what the company coyly dismisses as “organic” search activity by users; it’s harmless, you see, because it’s all natural. Under this scenario, a computer program is picking our elected officials.
To put this another way, our research suggests that no matter how innocent or disinterested Google’s employees may be, Google’s search algorithm, propelled by user activity, has been determining the outcomes of close elections worldwide for years, with increasing impact every year because of increasing Internet penetration.”
Epstein believes bias by Google and big tech, at a minimum, shifted 6 million votes to Biden.
One of the reasons Google can have such an effect on political views is because search engines are continuing to gain popularity when individuals seek out information about political topics. The Google Voter: Search Engines and Elections in the New Media Ecology shared the following:
“Despite the rise of social media as information providers, search engines remain the primary channel through which Internet users access online information in democratic countries such as the UK (Dutton & Blank, 2013) and the US (Purcell, Brenner, & Rainie, 2012). Internet users appear to trust search engines – especially Google – almost blindly, to the point that they question their own ability to search properly before doubting the effectiveness of Google’s algorithm (Hillis, Petit, & Jarrett, 2013). This is especially true for young people, who have no experience of the Internet prior to Google (Gunter, Rowlands, & Nicholas, 2009). In light of this, social scientists have spoken of a ‘Googlization’ phenomenon capable of affecting multiple economic, social, and political aspects of life (Lovink, 2009) and asked whether ‘anything (or anyone) matter[s] if it (or she) does not show up on the first page of Google results’ (Vaidhyanathan, 2011, p. 7).”
DuckDuckGo, a privacy-based search engine, which has a 1.76% market share, published a report outlining problems and political bias with the Google search engine which found “found 92% of users saw unique or results that varied from person to person when Googling vaccinations, 63% saw unique results when Googling “immigration,” and 59% saw unique results when Googling “gun control.” The reason this finding is concerning is that search results are not being augmented based on individual user preferences when controversial political terms are searched.
Google was fined $2.7 billion by the EU in 2017 for manipulating search results:
“The European Union slapped Google with a record-breaking $2.7 billion fine on Tuesday, charging that the U.S. tech giant had manipulated search results in a way that gives an “illegal advantage” to its own services while harming the company’s rivals.”
Unfortunately, antitrust actions in Europe have failed to diminish Google’s market share and power, which prevents competitors from emerging. The European Commission announced this year that it will propose the Digital Service Act to address online privacy issues and “to prevent a situation like the ones we have had with the Google cases so that we still would have competition,” according to Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s digital chief.
Can I Rank evaluated whether Google has Can I Rank evaluated whether Google has a political bias,. Can I Rank is a marketing company and specializes in services such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO is a central tool for marketers, businesses, and e-commerce companies. Can I Rank shared the following:
“In order to assess how fairly search engine results portray political candidates and controversial issues, we collected over 1,200 URLs ranking highly in Google.com for politically-charged keywords such as “gun control”, “abortion”, “TPP”, and “Black Lives Matter”. Each URL was then assessed for political slant by politically active individuals from both the left and right.
Finally, we used CanIRank’s SEO software to analyze how each URL compared in dozens of different ranking factors to determine whether Google’s algorithm treated websites similarly regardless of their political slant.
Among our key findings were that top search results were almost 40% more likely to contain pages with a “Left” or “Far Left” slant than they were pages from the right. Moreover, 16% of political keywords contained no right-leaning pages at all within the first page of results. Our analysis of the algorithmic metrics underpinning those rankings suggests that factors within the Google algorithm itself may make it easier for sites with a left-leaning or centrist viewpoint to rank higher in Google search results compared to sites with a politically conservative viewpoint.”
In October 2017, a report entitled “Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United State” was published by a research team consisting of:
- William Dutton, Quello Center, Michigan State University, USA
- Bianca Reisdorf, Quello Center, MSU, USA
- Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa, Canada
- Grant Blank, University of Oxford, Internet Institute (OII), UK
The paper was published as part of a larger study called “The Part Played by Search in Shaping Political Opinion.”
Google search results in the United States were more likely to involve political stories than any other country in the study. Search engines were also ranked first when participants were asked about which sources they use to find political information. 79% of Americans stated that online searches were an important factor when considering who to vote for.
When reviewing how internet searches can change political views, the researchers found that search engines can change political views:
“We asked a similar question in a more general way: “Have you ever modified your political views because of searching for information online?” In this case, over 40 percent (42%) said yes, suggesting that search can certainly lead people to modify their political views (Table4.16). This is particularly large given the expectation that most people will be attracted to information that reinforces their opinions. Cross-nationally, there was considerable variation.
Half of the respondents (49%), in the US, Spain, Italy, said yes, while a third of users in the UK (30%), Germany (33%), France (38%), and Poland (43%), said no, that the results of search had never changed their political views.”
The study also found that “The most important source was talking to family and friends, followed by the media and press, and then via search.” The study showed Americans were more likely than UK, German, and French participants to change their political views based on search results.
The Wall Street Journal published a story on November 15, 2019 entitled “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results:
“More than 100 interviews and the Journal’s own testing of Google’s search results reveal:
- Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.
- Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” and “featured snippets,” and news results, which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change.
- Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results.
- In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.
- Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have disagreed on how much to intervene on search results and to what extent. Employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism.
- To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.
On October 20,2020, The Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against Google “to stop Google from unlawfully maintaining monopolies through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets and to remedy the competitive harms.”
The lawsuit alleges that:
“Google monetizes this search monopoly in the markets for search advertising and general search text advertising, both of which Google has also monopolized for many years. Google uses consumer search queries and consumer information to sell advertising. In the United States, advertisers pay about $40 billion annually to place ads on Google’s search engine results 4 Case 1:20-cv-03010 Document 1 Filed 10/20/20 Page 5 of 64 page (SERP). It is these search advertising monopoly revenues that Google “shares” with distributors in return for commitments to favor Google’s search engine.”
The Department of Justice added the following in its press release:
“As alleged in the Complaint, Google has entered into a series of exclusionary agreements that collectively lock up the primary avenues through which users access search engines, and thus the internet, by requiring that Google be set as the preset default general search engine on billions of mobile devices and computers worldwide and, in many cases, prohibiting preinstallation of a competitor. In particular, the Complaint alleges that Google has unlawfully maintained monopolies in search and search advertising by:
- Entering into exclusivity agreements that forbid preinstallation of any competing search service.
- Entering into tying and other arrangements that force preinstallation of its search applications in prime locations on mobile devices and make them undeletable, regardless of consumer preference.
- Entering into long-term agreements with Apple that require Google to be the default – and de facto exclusive – general search engine on Apple’s popular Safari browser and other Apple search tools.
- Generally using monopoly profits to buy preferential treatment for its search engine on devices, web browsers, and other search access points, creating a continuous and self-reinforcing cycle of monopolization.
In his farewell address, Dwight Eisenhower warned of the creation of a technological elite:
“Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government. Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system-ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”