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According to the study, Big Tech can influence flocks of undecided voters “without people's awareness.”

A study has found that technology companies can influence the decisions of large numbers of undecided voters with search suggestions on search engines.

The to studydriven by Dr. Robert Epstein and several other affiliates of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT), sought to determine whether suggestions that appear in the search bar when using engines such as Google can influence the voting behavior of undecideds. Their findings suggest that the “search suggestion effect” (SSE) is real and powerful, so much so that search engine operators who control search suggestions could have “the power to change large numbers of votes without people realizing,” Epstein told the Daily Caller. News Foundation.

“We found that negative suggestions attract significantly more clicks than neutral or positive ones, consistent with extensive research on negativity bias, and that differentially removing negative search suggestions can turn a 50/50 split between undecided voters by more than a 90/10 split favoring the candidate for whom negative search suggestions were removed,” the study states. “We conclude that differential suppression of negative search suggestions can have a dramatic impact on the opinions and voting preferences of undecided voters, potentially changing large numbers of votes without people knowing and without leaving a paper trail for them to authorities can trace.”

Although Epstein's research indicates that ESS can be strong, Google — by far the most popular search engine in the US — says it does not manipulate its search engine for political purposes.

“We do not manipulate search results, modify our products, or apply our policies in any way to promote or harm any political ideology, viewpoint, or candidate,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement shared with the DCNF. “We have strict auto-completion policies and do not allow predictions that could be interpreted as taking a position for or against any political figure or party.”

Using the 2016 election as an example and making a few assumptions, the combination of biased search suggestions and biased search results could have theoretically shifted 1.5 to 2 million voters to support Hillary Clinton, according to the authors of the study The study controlled for all other influences as much as possible, meaning that the magnitude of the effect probably came out at the higher end of what would be the case under real-life conditions, but the authors stress that the frequency with which people use search engines for political content means that the effect accumulates on voters over time under realistic conditions.

“When ESS is used in the real world, the magnitude of its impact will vary. What we measured is probably the upper limit of that impact,” Epstein told the DCNF. “That said, in our experiments, we expose people to our manipulations only once, but in the real world, people are exposed to the same manipulations tens or hundreds of times, especially in the months leading up to an election. Our Ongoing research on the multiple exposure effect (MEE) shows that the impact of these repeated exposures is additive, making manipulations like SSE particularly dangerous.”

The researchers structured the study by conducting a series of five randomized, controlled, balanced, double-blind experiments. Each of these experiments led up to the final test, which set up a mock choice for subjects—who were undecided and generally unfamiliar with the candidates—to participate after exposure to manipulated search prompts.

The results of the final experiment indicate that “a single negative search suggestion can affect opinions dramatically because it links to search results that could be heavily biased against the candidate in question,” the study states.

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