Posted on March 22, 2019

This Psychologist Claims Google Search Results Unfairly Steer Voters to the Left. Conservatives Love Him

Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2019

The idea that Google is subtly pushing masses of voters to the left has the ring of conspiracy, and thus the work of Robert Epstein is warmly embraced by conservative lawmakers — as well as a president — convinced big tech is plotting against them.

Yet even many scholars who think the San Diego-based psychologist is wrong about the political impact of search engines — he believes bias built in to Google’s processes could have cost Republicans three California congressional districts in the last election — have started paying attention to his detailed work on how voters respond to tens of thousands of search results.

At a moment when misinformation about search engines and social media bias is rampant, with both the left and the right amplifying unsupported claims, Epstein is asking the right questions, they say, about the unseen power of algorithms and how little most Americans understand about the way they work.


“The larger issue he is looking at is extremely important,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor of information studies at UCLA who focuses on the relationships between technology and politics. Srinivasan voices skepticism about Epstein’s conclusion that the GOP is being victimized, but argues scholars need to look more deeply at how search engines can shape the views of those who use them.


Epstein, a former Psychology Today editor in chief who runs a nonprofit institute in California, calls the phenomenon he has explored the Search Engine Manipulation Effect.

“These are new forms of manipulation people can’t see,” he said. The technologies “can have an enormous impact on voters who are undecided. … People have no awareness the influence is being exerted.”


In his latest study, which he plans to present in April at the 99th annual meeting of the Western Psychological Assn., in Pasadena, Epstein tracked 47,300 searches by dozens of undecided voters in the districts of newly elected Democratic Reps. Katie Porter, Harley Rouda and Mike Levin.

Mainstream outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, dominated the Google search results. By contrast, searches conducted on Yahoo and Bing more often showcased links from deeply conservative outfits such at Breitbart.

Using a model he developed to gauge the subliminal impact of what he sees as tilted search results, Epstein projected 35,455 voters who were on the fence were persuaded to vote for a Democrat entirely because of the sources Google fed them.

That conclusion is subject to much dispute. Safiya Noble, a UCLA professor and author of “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” is troubled by Epstein’s argument that search engines ought to counter-balance the content of large, well-resourced and highly trained newsrooms with “disinformation sites” and “propaganda outlets.”

Srinivasan thinks Epstein may exaggerate how many undecided voters use Google to help decide how to cast ballots.


{snip} Even if Epstein is wrong about the impact of Google’s searches, the real issue, they say, is how little people know about the ways that the company’s algorithms manipulate what users see. Google engineers design their algorithms for a host of reasons — mostly related to boosting profits — and users just accept the top links as the most trustworthy and authoritative information on a topic.

“We need to understand the potential political impact of these underneath-the-hood choices” by tech companies, said Jacob Shapiro, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. {snip}

Noble agrees with that broader point that Google should not be guiding crucial societal questions, such as how we vote.

“We use these search engines as if they are arbiters of truth, and they are not,” she said. “They are global advertising platforms. They are not fact checkers or public interest technologies. … The minute you start to engage these broader social issues on a search engine, you run up against its limits.”

The fix, Noble says, involves giving people viable alternatives to Google that are not designed for profit, but the public interest.

Epstein calls for “a worldwide passive network of monitoring systems to keep an eye on emerging technologies and what they are showing and telling people.” {snip}