Does Google Secretly Manipulate Us To Vote for Democrats? The Evidence Is Flimsy.
As the 2020 presidential election heats up, alarmism over “Big Tech”‘s influence on voters is again reaching a fever pitch. Democrats fear the impact of fake news and Russian bots, while Republicans complain of supposed anti-conservative bias and censorship at Google, Twitter, and Facebook. They all agree that the federal government needs more power over online speech.
To bolster allegations of liberal activism by tech companies, Republicans have put a spotlight on the research of Robert Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist and self-described Hillary Clinton supporter who has called Google’s search engine “the most powerful mind control device ever devised.”
A former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, Epstein has conducted a series of studies over the past seven years that he says show that search engines and social media companies have used subliminal manipulation to shift a significant number of votes to Democrats. He says that the tech industry poses an even more pervasive threat in 2020 to the presidential election and to American democracy.
Google has called his work “nothing more than a poorly constructed conspiracy theory,” while Donald Trump cited Epstein’s research as an explanation for why he lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes. Hillary Clinton responded that Epstein’s studies have been “debunked.”
A careful review of Epstein’s work reveals that, though his research does not display any obvious methodological or statistical flaws, his findings don’t support the claims that he’s been making about the tech giants’ influence on real elections. Epstein over-extrapolates from his research to make allegations that have been seized on by politicians when making the case for more government control over internet platforms.
In testimony last year before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) called “incredibly powerful and incredibly concerning,” Epstein asserted that in 2016, bias in Google’s search algorithm may have shifted between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes to Hillary Clinton; that in 2018, the search engine may have shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes to Democratic candidates; and that if all the tech platforms get together in 2020, they could shift 15 million votes to Joe Biden, engineering a 20 percent win margin and a landslide election victory.
“Election by election, I can calculate how many votes these companies can shift,” Epstein tells Reason. His numeric estimates, he says, come from combining the results of several research studies that date back to 2013.
In Epstein’s initial lab-based and online experiments, participants spent up to 15 minutes researching details on a foreign election they knew nothing about. They used a fake search engine similar to Google that reordered results to favor a particular candidate. Then Epstein asked them how much their opinions of the candidate had shifted. He called the effect he was measuring the “Search Engine Manipulation Effect,” or SEME.
Based on the results of this research, Epstein testified before Congress that “biased search results can easily produce shifts in the opinions and voting preferences of undecided voters by up to 80 percent in some demographic groups.”
Epstein has used his SEME results to make other bold and specific claims, alleging that as of 2015, “upwards of 25 percent of the national elections in the world were being decided by Google’s search engine.” To arrive at this number, he compared the actual winning margins in elections around the globe to the proportion of undecided voters’ opinions he was able to shift in his SEME research and “just kind of put the two together.”
“The logic he described is just wrong,” says Aaron Brown, a statistician and former chief risk manager at the hedge fund AQR Capital Management who examined Epstein’s research at our request. Brown says that when calculating that number, Epstein makes the “absurd assumption” that biased search engines are the only thing influencing votes. Brown notes that people’s political opinions are shaped by everything from their family to their religion to an ad they might have seen. Epstein’s studies, says Brown, feature artificial scenarios that remove all the other sources of information and influence participants would normally be exposed to in a real election.
Epstein says he has reproduced SEME in realistic situations, pointing to an online study he ran in 2014 on Indian voters during a national election, which produced shifts in preference of 60 percent or more among some demographics. In that experiment, participants used Epstein’s biased search engine for an average of five minutes and then reported whether their opinions of the candidates had shifted after seeing the results.
“Whether that translates to actual changes in the vote people ultimately cast—I think there’s zero evidence for that,” Brown responds. He says that participants in this type of behavioral research often answer in the way that they think the experimenter wants them to; even if their opinions really do change, by the time they show up at an actual polling site, it’s likely that all sorts of other factors have changed their opinions yet again.
“The people whose votes you’re going to shift with something as trivial as five minutes on a biased search engine are going to be the people whose votes are easiest to shift,” says Brown, adding that they’re also probably the least likely to vote at all. To show that SEME was actually influencing elections, Brown says that Epstein needed to have measured “how many actual votes shifted, not how many people reported a shift in opinion.”
As evidence that tech companies can affect real voting behavior, Epstein points to a study run on 61 million Facebook users on election day 2010 that tested the impact of get-out-the-vote messages. He emphasizes that the study found that an additional 340,000 people voted as a result of all the manipulations the experimenters tested.
But Brown says this fits Epstein’s pattern of focusing on seemingly large numbers without giving their proper context. The Facebook study found that only one out of five people who said they voted after seeing the get-out-the-vote message actually did. The most effective appeal increased real voting by just 0.4 percent.
Brown concludes that the Facebook study “makes Epstein’s higher estimates of his effects seem implausible,” and he suggests that far fewer people would actually change their votes as compared to the effects Epstein has observed. He says that because the experimenters measured actual voting, the results are “not a theoretical thing based on a sort of chain of logic.”
Asked to respond to Brown’s criticisms, Epstein says his estimate that tech companies could shift 15 million
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