Can Google fix elections?

I read an article in a leading news website (its sort of a tabloid these days), which were based on a study by Dr. Robert Epstein & his team, he is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology in California. The project was based on Search Engine Manipulation Effect, with the acronym SEME.

In the research study a group of undecided participants (1800 voters) were divided into groups in which search rankings were biased towards Arvind  Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi based on which group they were in. All these participants were asked to search for the candidates in a normal way, with only a difference of results appearance based on the groups assigned.

The results, the voting preferences favorably shifted by an average of 12.5 percent towards the candidates (Kejriwal, Gandhi / Modi) groups they were assigned. And this shift was hugely shifted in the categories of unemployed voters (18 percent) and women voters over 35 years (19 percent). And detection rate of this biased by the participants was just 1 percent.

Dr. Robert Epstein said “This is a very Serious matter, a real threat to democracy”. Also added “Even if without human intervention the company’s search algorithm favoured one candidate, thousands of votes would still be driven to that candidate”.

But I wasn’t convinced by this report,

1. In India internet is accessed by about 25-30% of the total voter base, with so many national and regional political parties people wouldn’t usually search for the national leaders, they would try to understand their local leaders. Also what about cultural and regional influences?

2. This study doesn’t involve Media (News papers, TV news channels, magazines, etc), these media also plays a very significant role in India, as majority of the population are reached via these mediums.

3. Significance of social media, in last couple of years youth in the country have jumped on to the facebook, twitter, etc bandwagons and the voting of them would majorly influenced by the peers, news updates, reactions by the leaders in local and national levels.

4. This study doesn’t provide any details of SEO, marketing efforts made by different parties, target audiences, correlation analysis, etc

With these kinds of loopholes, this study is irrelevant in India, but this data might be a useful tool, to develop and fine tune for future predictions and also a control parameter but as of now its not a comprehensive one.

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