The Devil’s Greatest Trick: After Canada, Could Google Throw A U.S. Election?

There is an increasing chorus in the press wondering just how much Google could influence elections without any of us knowing it happened.  Sound crazy?  Not so much.  A leading academic has a study demonstrating its entirely possible, and seems particularly possible in tight elections or a voter population that is relatively small compared to the U.S. and highly concentrated–like Canada.  (MTP first reported this story in 2013:  Now That’s What I Call Bundling: Can Google Throw Elections?)

As Professor Robert Epstein writes in a recent Politico story:

Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. 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, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson .

How would this work?

Uncle Sugar Throws His Hat in the Ring

We know that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s startup The Groundwork is working exclusively for Hillary Clinton according to Quartz:

The Groundwork, a political technology startup funded by Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt, has maintained its position as the top technology provider to Hillary Clinton’s campaign….The Groundwork received payments of $136,131 during the third quarter, bringing its total payments from Clinton’s campaign up to $313,349. It is the single highest-paid provider of technology services to the campaign….

(In case you missed it, Google took a page from the Clear Channel playbook and reorganized to create a company called “Alphabet”, but it’s still what we would think of as Google.  The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing you that he does not exist.)

$313,349?  Do you think that $313,349 payment actually covers the cost of whatever The Groundwork is doing for Secretary Clinton?  Or do you think that maybe one of The Groundwork’s investors is subsidizing that work?

The Groundwork, as Quartz revealed, is building the infrastructure for a modern, data-driven campaign—integrating vast amounts of information into a platform that will allow Clinton to raise money, coordinate volunteers and events, and plot get-out-the-vote efforts.

Blue State Digital, a competitor to The Groundwork, made the mistake of doing some work for potential Clinton competitor Senator Elizabeth Warren.  The Clinton campaign hasn’t paid Blue State since July, right around the time Secretary Clinton started with Schmidt’s company.

The Groundwork’s main investor, Eric Schmidt, has a history of investing in startups that emerge from Democratic campaigns, and his decision to fund this one could end up being even more valuable to Clinton than a big donation. The company, founded as Clinton began exploring her presidential run, works with no other campaigns….

The Trump Filter

Google Chrome is the only search engine that supports a filter for the name of a political candidate:  The Trump Filter

According to Time:

The add-on is available in the Chrome web store and has three adjustable levels of filtration — mild, aggressive and vindictive — for the level Donald Trump references that it finds and eliminates from one’s web browsing experience….

According to TrumpFilter:

Eliminate Donald Trump from all your web browsing without leaving the Internet. Donald simply disappears from your view of every web page.

Put aside for the moment how you may or may not feel about Donald Trump.  What if the filter was for Bernie Sanders?  Marriage equality?  News that was critical of the party elected to the White House?

What if the filter was not in a browser extension you had to load but was in the search algorithm?

Eyesight for the Doubly Blind

In a startling new study, “Democracy at Risk: Manipulating Search Rankings Can Shift Voting Preferences Substantially Without Voter Awareness” Dr. Robert Epstein and Dr. Ronald E.  Robertson of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology have determined that:

In a double-blind, controlled experiment, web pages and search engine results from an actual election were presented to three groups of eligible voters. In two of the groups, rankings favored one candidate or the other. Preferences shifted dramatically toward favored candidates, with 75% of subjects showing no awareness of the manipulation. In a second experiment, voter preferences again shifted in the predicted direction, and the proportion of people who were unaware of the manipulation was increased by slightly altering the rankings to mask the favoritism. In a third experiment, a more aggressive mask was used to hide the manipulation, and no subjects appeared to be aware of it, even though voter preferences still shifted in the predicted directions.
We conclude (1) that the outcomes of real elections—especially tight races—could conceivably be determined by the strategic manipulation of search engine rankings and (2) that the manipulation could be accomplished without people being aware of it.

If you think this is a far-fetched idea, you should realize that corporate monoliths like Google have been at this game for quite a while in different ways.  Take a look at the sordid history of the marketing of the drug Lunesta as reported by the Columbia Journalism Review in Bitter Pill.  If it weren’t for the good work of the CBS news team lead by veteran investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson (who now has her own operation at Full Measure), it’s likely that the entire scam would have never been discovered.

Agency capture?  Crony capitalism? Manufactured studies?  Astroturf campaigns?  Front organizations?  Sounds like a job for Google.

And why bother with all that tacky lobbying when you can just buy the election without anyone ever knowing you did it?

The Greatest Trick: Election Canada

Canada recently held a national election in which Professor Epstein’s research particularly resonated and which returned a majority for the Liberal Party, lead by now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  According to Michael Den Tandt writing in the National Post, a leading serious newspaper in Canada:

If 2011 marked this country’s first wholehearted plunge into online politicking, Election 2015 could be the one in which shaking hands and kissing babies get overtaken by Tweeting and posting. It’s a shift with big implications — though bizarrely, it seems to be taken as a given, or assumed to be wholly good, if it garners much notice.

A closer look yields a more complex portrait. The addled partisanship of Twitter and the breathtaking, targeted reach of Facebook are one thing. What if a single tech giant had the power to control an election with a tweak of its search engine, should it so desire? According to one peer-reviewed study published this summer by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among the world’s most cited scientific journals, this may be the case already.

Google Canada was not a mere observer of the Canadian elections.  Google developed an app called “Google Election Tracker” that regularly monitored and reported on opinion trends before election day.  If you’re thinking, this is all about Big Data, you’d be right.  When you add in the fact that Google is a major player in lobbying and politics, you’d also be right.

But it’s Google’s search monopoly that singles it out like every other politically dominant monopolist since Standard Oil and Big Tobacco and more appropriately another news monopolist who liked the ladies, William Randolph Hearst.  Those monopolists–not even Hearst–didn’t control public opinion like Google can.

The National Post highlights:

Presumably [Google’s Election Tracker] data set is drawn from Google Canada searches alone; it holds just under 70 per cent of this country’s search-engine market, alongside small fry such as Bing (10 per cent) and Yahoo Canada (six per cent). In the United States, its market share is also 70 per cent or higher; in Europe, upward of 90 per cent; in India, 95 per cent or more.  Such unchallenged dominance gives the company unprecedented insight into Canadians’ political habits online.

But here’s what’s intriguing about Google’s stepping out politically, as it apparently intends to do in the U.S presidential campaign next year. Its 2016 Election Tracker makes it a player, with the potential to wield influence, even as it faces a Competition Bureau investigation in Canada, anti-trust action in Europe and India, and continuing questions about its business practices and active lobbying links to the Obama White House in the United States.

If Google were to do in Canada what it has done in the UK but especially in the US, one would expect to see more Google executives end up in the Trudeau government than ever before.  These would, of course, be in positions that attracted little attention below the ministerial level, preferably in the “belly of the beast” allowing Google both a potential information flow and infection point control over key agencies.

Of course, Google will deny that it’s doing anything in the way of election manipulation, notwithstanding the fact that it has more market segmentation and data profiles than any multinational corporation in the history of world.  But to Professor Epstein’s point: “[T]he manipulation could be accomplished without people being aware of it.”  How would you ever know?

Leslie Church, Google Canada’s head of communications, passed along this response from Amit Singhal, the parent company’s senior vice-president of search: “There is absolutely no truth to Mr. Epstein’s hypothesis that Google could work secretly to influence election outcomes. Google has never re-ranked search results on any topic (including elections) to manipulate user sentiment.”

That would be Leslie Church, the former Google Canada executive, Liberal Party Parliamentary flack, all round revolving door person and the new chief of staff to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.  (MTP readers will recall that Canada’s Ministry of Heritage has a lot to say about copyright policy in Canada.)