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Could Google Tilt a Close Election?

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President Barack Obama and 2012 presidential challenger Mitt Romney.

A psychologist suspects search engines like Google can sway close elections by manipulating search rankings.

Credit: Lyric Cinema Cafe

Psychologist Robert Epstein sees potential for a dominant search engine such as Google to sway close elections without most voters noticing by manipulating search rankings so that a favored candidate wins by pushing up positive links and pushing down negative ones.

The most vulnerable voters to this type of election fixing would be those least tuned in to other information sources, such as campaign ads or news reports.

Epstein's scenario is based on the possibility of the manipulation being an inside job, which would be hard to detect at first.

Epstein and others say Google's potency alone, with about two-thirds of the U.S. search engine market in its control, is such that legal safeguards are needed.

Countering such views is Georgetown University professor David Vladeck, who says search engine-based electoral manipulation is difficult, given the sheer volume of other information available to voters.

There also are differing views on what kinds of rules, if any, would sensibly and effectively rein in search engines. "The more trust we give to these kinds of tools, the more likely we can be manipulated down the road," warns Wellesley College professor Panagiotis T. Metaxas. "We need to understand, as people, as citizens, why we believe what we believe."

From The Washington Post
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