CS Table, September 1, 2015: "Google and Elections"

This week at CS Table, we will consider a recent article on the potential power of Google to swing elections:

Rogers, Adam (2015). “Google's Search Algorithm Could Steal the Presidency.” Available on line at

IMAGINE AN ELECTION -- A close one. You're undecided. So you type the name of one of the candidates into your search engine of choice. (Actually, let's not be coy here. In most of the world, one search engine dominates; in Europe and North America, it's Google.) And Google coughs up, in fractions of a second, articles and facts about that candidate. Great! Now you are an informed voter, right? But a study published this week says that the order of those results, the ranking of positive or negative stories on the screen, can have an enormous influence on the way you vote. And if the election is close enough, the effect could be profound enough to change the outcome.

In other words: Google's ranking algorithm for search results could accidentally steal the presidency. “We estimate, based on win margins in national elections around the world,” says Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and one of the study's authors, “that Google could determine the outcome of upwards of 25 percent of all national elections.”

Those of you who want to delve more deeply into the issue can read (or skim) the full journal article:

Epstein, Robert, and Robertson, Ronald E. (2015). “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and Its Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (33). Available on line at

Internet search rankings have a significant impact on consumer choices, mainly because users trust and choose higher-ranked results more than lower-ranked results. Given the apparent power of search rankings, we asked whether they could be manipulated to alter the preferences of undecided voters in democratic elections. Here we report the results of five relevant double-blind, randomized controlled experiments, using a total of 4,556 undecided voters representing diverse demographic characteristics of the voting populations of the United States and India. The fifth experiment is especially notable in that it was conducted with eligible voters throughout India in the midst of India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections just before the final votes were cast. The results of these experiments demonstrate that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) search ranking bias can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. We call this type of influence, which might be applicable to a variety of attitudes and beliefs, the search engine manipulation effect. Given that many elections are won by small margins, our results suggest that a search engine company has the power to influence the results of a substantial number of elections with impunity. The impact of such manipulations would be especially large in countries dominated by a single search engine company.

Computer Science Table is a weekly meeting of Grinnell College community members (students, faculty, staff, etc.) interested in discussing topics related to computing and computer science. CS Table meets Tuesdays from 12:00-12:45 in JRC 224C. Contact the CS faculty for the weekly reading. Students on meal plans, faculty, and staff are expected to cover the cost of their meals. Visitors to the College and students not on meal plans can charge their meals to the department.

CS Table: Dr. Google

This Friday at CS Table, Liyan and Martin D. will be leading a discussion about Dr. Google vs. your Practitioner. The readings can be found at the following link: We'll meet at noon in JRC 224A. Please feel free to e-mail [raymondw] if you have any questions!

CS Table/CSC 295: Internet censorship in China

This Friday, Jeff and Simon will be leading a discussion on Internet censorship in China. We have a few recent news stories about Google in China, plus a 2003 research study.

CS Table/CSC 295, October 1, 2010: Password reuse; is Google evil?

This Friday at CS Table, Dr. Rebelsky and I will be presenting the XCKD comic "Password Reuse".

To add some seriousness to the conversation, please also read

As usual, we'll be meeting at noon in JRC 224A. Hope to see you there!

Thursday Extra: "An introduction to the Google Maps API"

On Thursday, May 13, Tony Pan will demonstrate some basics of the Google Maps Application Programming Interface by building a 2010 Iowa Census map in ten simple steps.

Refreshments will be served at 4:15 p.m. in the Computer Science Commons (Noyce 3817). The talk, An introduction to the Google Maps API, will follow at 4:30 p.m. in Noyce 3821. Everyone is welcome to attend!

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