Nothing ignites partisan temper-tantrums more than the suggestion that the "other side" might have gained an advantage overlooked by our side. The latest bout of alarmist nonsense came from a Politico story in August attributing outsized macro-manipulation potential to the world’s favorite online search engine, Google.
While the column stopped short of assigning any particular political agenda to Google, it delighted in its suggestive mishandling of the evidence demonstrating that, if it wanted to, the Powers That Be who are responsible for Google’s famed search algorithms could easily hijack elections by a margin of 20-80% of voters.
By controlling what results appear for any politically-oriented search, Google could effectively program public opinion—or so the theory goes. The only trouble with this conception of Google is that it all but ignores how Google Search actually works. In fact, Google is little more than a window to the web: it can provide a view, but it can’t control what is out there.
Google is not actually responsible for the content of the web—it only provides a platform by which human beings can navigate the incomprehensibly large repository of data on the Internet and find something they are actually looking for. The sites that populate a given search result are all products of the creators -- and consumers -- of online content. That means that Google’s results can only be as biased as the people who comprise the traffic visiting, reading, commenting, sharing, and engaging online.
That is to say: the results are doomed to be incredibly biased, because the anonymity and ease of opining online means bias thrives in the absence of accountability.The Internet has swollen with the words, images, and videos of countless individuals
flocking to the digital spaces where they can tune in to like-minded bloggers and commenters, while tuning-out any and all dissenting views. It is this ability of the masses to indulge their political tunnel-vision that informs Google which bits and bites are the best results for any search for a candidate, campaign, or policy.
And you can bet that any voter looking to get both sides could just as easily type “Pros and Cons” alongside the name, program, or platform in question to better filter the wings off their query and discover more substantive facts. They just have to want facts more than opinions, which is the greater challenge in turning out voters—or running for office.
The trouble isn’t that there is too much bias; the trouble is that partisan voters are too comfortable only engaging one side and ignoring the opposition entirely when making an electoral decision.
If we are to take seriously the countless theories as to what drives voter behavior, then everything from home team sports records to fear of death to polling locations and more become suspect. Taken together, the net effect of these seemingly innocuous influencers becomes greater than the actual amount of voters turning out for an election.
Given the modern tendency to turn to technology—especially “smart” Internet-ready tech—to answer our questions, search engines and online spaces certainly would appear to have an outsized influence over the politics and behaviors of the analog world. Ultimately, though, user intent still determines how people interact with their tools and toys, and how the conversation online or offline takes shape.
At its core, Google is responsible for finding whatever on the Internet mentions or features the candidates. That subjective content, trashing or praising the candidates, isn’t made by Google—it is made by us. And when we choose to listen or ignore, share or disregard, bookmark or block any of that content, we are the ones telling Google whether that resource is relevant, ethical, informed, or not.
So if some impressionable voter can spend a few minutes doing Google research on a candidate and have his or her opinion—and vote—transformed, it isn’t Google’s doing; it is the people who made their voices heard online who managed to make themselves relevant and dominant enough to lead in the search results.
Google is not changing democracy; it is simply amplifying the conversations already going on. Ultimately, it is still we, the voters, who have the most influence in elections.