Beginning in 2012, he started researching the effects of search engine and social media algorithms on voter behavior. In particular, he has emphasized the subtle effects of biased search engine results, and especially Google's results. The emphasis on Google is for two reasons. The first reason is the obvious one: they're the 800 pound gorilla of the search engines although not as big as they once were. Current numbers say they have about 73% of searches from desktop computers. After all, nobody says to “Bing” this or “Duck Duck Go” that. Google is the only search engine that has risen to being a verb. Second and perhaps more subtle is that there was a video that showed a Google employee meeting soon after election day of 2016, in which the leader said, “we're never going to let this happen again.” Excuse me? “never going to let this happen again?”
Regarding elections, Dr. Epstein has found in multiple studies that search rankings that favor a political candidate drive the votes of undecided voters toward that candidate, an effect he calls SEME ("seem"), the Search Engine Manipulation Effect. As a result, Dr. Epstein has called for the regulation and monitoring of search engines. Without equal-time rules of the sort that protect political candidates in other media domains, he says, biased search rankings exercise undue influence over voter's opinions - influence that cannot be counteracted by individual candidates but that can easily determine who will win a close election.He claims that in his studies, search engine result manipulation has been shown to sway large numbers of undecided voters. Since his initial publication of results of his studies, whistle blowers inside Google have confirmed to him that this is an area the company is working on. They refer to the techniques as being undetectable because it would take special efforts to determine what search engine users were given.
Dr. Epstein's landmark report about SEME, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2015, can be downloaded here. As of January 2018, it had been downloaded more than 90,000 times from PNAS's website and was ranked by PNAS to be in the top 1 percent of all reports the organization monitored in all the sciences.
Because people have come to place enormous trust in high-ranking search results, results that are biased to favor one candidate can easily shift 20 percent or more of the votes of undecided voters toward that candidate - up to 80 percent of the votes in some demographic groups.Dr. Epstein is essentially self-funded these days and is a principal at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT); when he started pointing out how our new tech overlords can be rigging elections he found out how valuable tenure was. He has made friends with Glenn Beck and appeared for a segment on today's show. This edited version is worth the 11 minutes to watch.
Dr. Epstein believes big tech can shift 15 million votes with favorable search results and hidden bias. I have to think that 15 million votes, spread among a few critical precincts in a few contested states in the country could swing the election.
It has to make you wonder if voters really have free will and if it will even exist in the future.