Yes, yes, we have all been taught that the pen is mightier than the sword.
But that is hopelessly out of date. That is so last century. The current reality is that the search algorithm is mightier than the pen — or the keyboard.
You can write something inspiring or shocking, something illuminating and enlightening — something that could change the world! You can give a speech that moves your audience to tears or to rage. You can publish the text or video on a blog or on various social media sites.
But if it lingers at the bottom of the search rankings when somebody is looking online for your topic, not too many people are going to see it.
You will change the world only if the algorithm lets you.
And that, in rudimentary form, is the thinking behind researcher Robert Epstein’s conclusion that the next presidential election could by “rigged” by Google — the search engine giant that is moving into everything from self-driving cars to facial recognition to robotics, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and a lot more — reportedly acquiring an average of a company a week since 2010.
The company is so dominant in the Internet search field that its name has been a verb for more than a decade: You want to find out about something, you Google it.
That, Epstein says, gives it more power not just to inform, but also to control opinions and beliefs more than any company in history.
“Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more – up to 80 percent in some demographic groups — with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Politico that was also carried or covered by multiple news outlets and websites, according to … Google. Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, says his conclusion – what he calls the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) – is based on years of research and five experiments with thousands of participants in two countries that, he said, demonstrated how adjusting numeric weightings in search algorithms could, “boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session.”
Google, he noted, acknowledges that it adjusts its algorithm about 600 times a year, but keeps the process secret.
The company’s statement in response to a small blizzard of publicity after Epstein’s post appeared: “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.”
Which is so meaningless as to amount to a “no comment.”
So, is Epstein simply sowing another layer of paranoia to boost his own professional profile — what those in information technology like to call FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)?
Perhaps. For pretty much all of American history, we eligible voters, who magically become precious, important and powerful for a few months during every election cycle, have been targets of manipulation. Campaign ads, fliers in the mail, robocalls, surveys, polls, bumper stickers, focus groups, feverish posts on social media that are “liked” and “shared” by all the “friends” we’ve either never met or never seen for decades — they are all aimed at making us think better or worse of those who are seeking our vote.
As one comment in an online discussion about Epstein’s claims put it, “Amazon could rig long-term mindsets with the books and products they recommend first. (Expletive), news agencies could totally be biased! Wait a sec …”
Or, as another put it a bit more directly, “So politicians buying ads and buying off other politicians is totally fair, but when Google does it for free it’s suddenly ‘rigging.’”
A fair point. But the difference may be that most of these established techniques, even if they use digital technology and the Web, are known as “legacy” methods. They’re old school. Yes, they have an effect, but a lot of people are wise to them.
Adjusting search algorithms is more subtle — it doesn’t dictate what you click on to read, but it arranges search results in a way that can emphasize what another entity — a consultant, a company, a political action committee — wants you to see. It doesn’t even have to be all positive — yet another affirmation of the old political cliché that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Readers may believe they have changed their opinions (or solidified them) on their own, without a clue that they have been manipulated.
If that sounds like conservative paranoia, there may be a bit of that in there. It is well-known that Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page support liberal causes.
But imagine that the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the Left’s current bogeymen, bought Google. Would liberals still think concerns about voter manipulation amount to paranoia, or would those concerns suddenly become legitimate?
The point is, there ought to be transparency demanded of any entity with that kind of power. There ought to be a way for some select group of experts from both the left and right to audit the search algorithm without giving away trade secrets.
That is unlikely to happen in this coming election cycle. But there should be bipartisan agreement to address it. It is not paranoia to say that it poses a genuine threat to democracy.
Taylor Armerding of Ipswich is an independent columnist.