Morning must-read: Could Google sway an election?

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Psychologist Robert Epstein has been testing the impact of a fictitious search engine “that manipulated search rankings, giving an edge to a favored political candidate by pushing up flattering links and pushing down unflattering ones.”

Given the wealth of information available about Internet users, a search engine could … tailor results for … certain groups, based on location, age, income level, past searches … The voters least tuned in to other sources of information, such as news reports or campaign advertisements, would be most vulnerable. These are the same people who often end up in the crucial middle of American politics as coveted swing voters. … A search engine that favors certain news sources – based, for example, on the sophistication of the writing as measured by vocabulary or sentence length – might push to prominence links preferred by highly educated readers, helping the political party and ideas they support. … ‘Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning,’ [Google] said in a statement. ‘It would undermine people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.’ …

“[T]he creators of ‘Google bombs’ managed to link the name of then-Sen. John Kerry … with the word ‘waffles’ in search results. President George W. Bush had his name linked, through similar tactics, to the words ‘miserable failure.’ In 2010, a conservative group used a collection of linked Twitter accounts to affect search rankings about the Massachusetts special election that brought Scott Brown to the Senate … Google has resisted such tactics, and its vulnerability to manipulation from outside was limited in the 2012 election cycle, according to researchers, political professionals and search experts. … [S]earch results on Google are generated by a complex and ever-changing algorithm – weighing, for example, links to other sites, content quality and the time spent on sites when people click through.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.