Nobody knows how many people saw the knowledge box in the search results for the California Republican Party website that labeled the group as followers of the Nazi ideology. Nobody but Google, and they aren’t telling.
We don’t know the exact numbers, but according to Google Trends, searches for the California Republican Party increased 833% between April 15 and May 26. In terms of election timing, more than 1.6 million votes have already been cast in the June 6 primary election - about a third of the expected turnout.
So anybody searching for information about California Republican Party candidates during the closing days of the election would have seen the slur. And all we know is that the number of searches has increased dramatically in recent weeks.
Google Search Results Impact Elections
Studies show that Google searches are very persuasive in political campaigns. Dr. Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief at Psychology Today, is an authority on the capacity for political persuasion in Google searches.
According to Dr. Epstein, randomized controlled experiments he has conducted in U.S. and overseas elections show that the undecided vote can swing from 50/50 to 10/90 with the proper manipulation of Google search results.
“This kind of thing happens frequently on Google. I've documented many examples.” said Dr. Epstein
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, agrees. He thinks this kind of thing happens entirely too frequently on Google. McCarthy tweeted a screenshot of the offensive search results on Thursday saying:
Google tweeted in response,“We have systems in place that catch vandalism before it impacts search results, but occasionally errors get through, and that happened here.”
Google Errors Typically Favor the Left
Dr. Epstein goes on to say that the fact that Google's ‘mistakes’ "tend to favor liberal values could just be a fluke, but there are many indications … that they are deliberate - part of Google's well-meaning effort to improve humanity..."
Dr. Epstein points to an 8 ½ minute internal video leaked from Google in 2016. Narrated in a soothing British accent, the video is charmingly Orwellian as it describes a methodology to lead our entire species down a path to “reflect Google’s values as an organization.”
Who is responsible for this particular “mistake”? Not the creepy Google video... the creepy Google search results.
It looks like both Google and Wikipedia have culpability. Matt Bently, the chief data scientist at CanIRank points out that a Wikipedia editor using Comcast in Santa Cruz inserted the the term “Nazism” on the California Republican Party entry at 10:52 PDT on May 23. It was taken down at 12:40 PDT on the 31st.
Vandalism Can Swing an Election
Google called it vandalism. Vandalism typically does not swing otherwise fair elections. It is kind of like someone breaking into the County Courthouse and stealing ballots is vandalism. How damaging is this vandalism to California Republicans?
The California Republican Party is relatively fortunate that the Wikipedia slur was seen for only eight days. And more fortunate that VICE News found it at all.
Dr. Epstein points out the “error” that got through Google's systems is relatively easy to catch, and only the tip of the iceberg. He says that by listing search results in a way that favors one candidate, Google can manipulate the vote and nobody would know.
Perhaps even more frightening than a devious tech giant impacting our democracy intentionally is a tech giant swaying elections around the world with its algorithms without recognizing it.
Dr. Epstein, a Harvard PhD, conducted research on the 2016 elections that shows extreme bias for Secretary Clinton.
From his research:
Between October 15th and Election Day — the period when we received the largest volume of data — on all 22 of the days we received data, search rankings favored Mrs. Clinton in all 10 of the search positions on the first page of search results.
Algorithms Gone Wild
Either those results are from algorithms gone wild, or from tech execs trying to move the needle on an election. Today, and most days it seems, the manipulation works against Republicans. But anyone who values elections taking place outside of corporate control should be concerned about what happened today. Although we don't have any data, it seems unlikely that the search results during the Democratic primary favored Bernie.
The hard part of this research is proving the case on something as ephemeral as search results. They disappear from the public record as soon as you close the browser tab.
Dr. Epstein solved that problem by automatically archiving 132,070 search results in 2016. As far as Dr. Epstein knows, his team is the only organization in the world archiving search results to keep Big Tech honest.
Nobody else is looking over the shoulder of Big Tech Big Brother.
As I click the "publish" button, I wonder when and where this article will appear in Google's search results.