Psychologist Robert Epstein has written a piece for Politico, titled “How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election.” He’s trumpeting his recently-published study of “Search Engine Manipulation Effects” (SEME), stating with bluster that “Google has the ability to control voters.”
Epstein clearly wants attention for his work. So let’s go ahead and give him some.
(spoiler: it isn’t very good.)
His research centers on a series of lab experiments (also replicated through Mechanical Turk and with volunteer participants in India) where volunteers are asked their opinion of political candidates, then encouraged to spend 15 minutes searching the candidates through a fake Google setup (called Kadoodle), then asked their opinion of the candidates again. Epstein finds that, if his team artificially boosted the ranking of positive stories for a candidate in Kadoodle results, then opinion of that candidate would improve.
This makes basic sense. Participants in the experiment, when instructed to search through fake-google, click on the first few results they see. They incorporate that new information into their impressions of the candidates. It’s basically a digital-era update on the types of study that Iyengar and Kinder published in 1987.
But it’s a massive and unjustified leap to get from Epstein’s study to Epstein’s lede in Politico (“America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.”)
The basic problem is external validity. If undecided voters made voting decisions by Googling candidates and seeing what articles come up, then Epstein’s study would be relevant. But they don’t.
Undecided voters are overwhelmingly low-information voters. They aren’t watching political news. They’re mostly avoiding political advertising, when they can. They aren’t sitting at home Googling candidates. If they were, they wouldn’t be low-information voters.
What’s more, when actual low-information voters do encounter incidental information, it’s happening through social sharing, not google searches. That’s why search engine optimization has largely been overtaken by social optimization in the past 3-4 years. Social is where serendipitous discovery and incidental exposure actually happen today.
Facebook could potentially rig an election, as Micah Sifry and Jonathan Zittrain have both pointed out. It could fiddle with the newsfeed algorithm or selectively deploy its “I voted” functionality, in order to boost enthusiasm and turnout for one candidate or the other. (Facebook won’t do this, of course, because the company would invite a massive congressional investigation if it did. Lightly-regulated quasi-monopolies tend to rationally avoid behaviors that can invite major regulatory scrutiny.)
But Google? To rig the 2016 election, Google would have to try really hard. It would have to task dozens of engineers and social scientists with sorting through messy data, merging it with the voter file wherever possible, then apply aggressive nudges to expose low-information/high-susceptibility voters to information that they otherwise aren’t seeking out.
Epstein’s study doesn’t show any of what Epstein claims in his Politico article. Search Engine Manipulation Effects are just the digital equivalent of the traditional news media priming, framing, and agenda-setting effects that we’ve been aware of for decades. It isn’t some new dastardly digital disaster.
This research is an object lesson in why the trend in election research has been toward field experiments, instead of lab experiments, and why the best research also tends to feature observational research on how campaigns and voters actually behave. Elections don’t happen in a lab, and undecided voters don’t behave the way they would if we were paying them to participate. (…Epstein also doesn’t particularly bother to familiarize himself with the literatures on elections, voting behavior, media effects, or digital news, but now I’m just playing armchair peer reviewer.)
Social science gets a bad rap when researchers start making bold, self-promotional claims. Epstein’s peer-reviewed study isn’t great. But his Politico self-aggrandizement tour is downright embarrassing.