Could Google Inc. Really Decide The 2016 Presidential Race?

Google has an enormous amount of power through its ability to manipulate search rankings.

The company can make or break a brand or website by making minor tweaks to its algorithms. There's an entire science devoted to interpreting every move Google makes because even subtle changes can make a huge difference.

Google has always maintained that the goal of its endless tinkering is delivering the best search results possible. That seems to be true and the search giant famously has a "you can make money without doing evil," policy, but just because it currently has good intentions does not mean it always will.

The company's success and its ability to control where people go on the Internet put it into a place where it could impact the next president of the United States. There's no reason to believe Google intends to rig the coming election, but it has that power according to a Politico essay written by Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

How could Google do this?Epsteinwrote that Google not only has the power to swing the results in the election, but that it can do so in a way only he and "a few other obscure researchers would know." He explained his findings in the piece.

Google can't move every voter, but Epstein explained that you only need to cause a small shift to swing the results. He pointed put that "in the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6%, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9% well within Google's control."

Essentially it comes down to Google's ability to decide which results pop up when people enter a search term. What pops up is based on a complicated (and very secret formula). Imagine if you Google "Donald Trump immigration."

Given the query, the search giant would be justified in serving up his speeches, news clips from the campaign trail, articles supporting/attacking his stances. Depending on how the algorithm is calibrated searchers could see any or all of the above and it's easy to see how pointing people in a certain direction could lead people to think one thing over another.

Google could change opinions by changing what people see when they search "Donald Trump immigration. Source: Google search results

It's not that they will, but they canThough Epstein does not suggest that Google will intentionally influence election results he points out the company could in a way the government is not setup to protect against.

The company's official comment on SEME research is always the same: "Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google's approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people's trust in our results and company if we were to change course."

That's almost certainly true, but it's still disconcerting that one company has the ability to change the course of politics (and history) not just in the U.S. but globally.

We need to study thisThe most frightening aspect of Epstein's research is not the idea that Google can do this it's how little the people who protect the sanctity of elections would understand what would happen. Voter fraud in the traditional sense can be combated on a broad level, but manipulating an election by subtly tweaking search results would be hard to detect and perhaps impossible to prove.

Of course, Google is not the only company which could impact elections. Facebook has issued an electronic "I voted" button in elections around the world "with data scientists later finding that tiny social nudge can provide positive peer pressure driving Facebook users to the polls," Time reported.

Getting people to vote is admirable, but it's also a form of manipulation and shows that the line between legal behavior from big-tech and rigging the vote may not be quite so clear.

Epstein has identified a potential future problem. Google, and maybe other Internet powers, can shift opinions in subtle ways that are unprecedented in history. This is tricky to combat but it's something officials should be aware of and something we as a nation should be prepared to prevent.

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Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook. He has Googled himself. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Facebook, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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