How “We the Google” threatens free and fair elections

If Google and Facebook Can Flip Elections Does Code Now Rule the Real World

Internet users used to be worried about government control of the web, but the power of new digital empires suggests that the opposite may be true.

By CHRIS SPANNOS

As the race for the 2016 US presidential candidacy heats up, research suggests that social media and search engine giants may be able to manipulate voter preferences for candidates. This far-reaching influence may not only affect the US but extend to elections in countries around the world.

Media outlets, including Forbes and New Scientist, are reporting that new digital technologies are profoundly affecting the decisions that people make. Not just decisions about what kind of toothpaste or coffee to buy, but decisions that affect societies as a whole – such as the US presidential elections. The research casts further doubt on the presumption that elections are free and fair.

The common, optimistic view of the democratic process is that voter preferences determine the outcome of elections. In close-calls, and in the interests of expediency, democracy can be replaced by the tossing of a coin, as happened in the Iowa Democratic caucusbetween Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders last February. The pessimistic view is that existing electoral systems are fundamentally and structurally flawed. Outrageous ‘political action committees’ (PACS and Super PACs) allow unlimited private donations to candidates, creating a bias toward the interests of the rich and powerful. Media conglomerates can apply their opinion-forming machines to the benefit of the owners’ preferred candidates.

Recent research points to new – potentially more powerful and not so clearly discernible – influencers. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, warns of the ‘invisible’ power of social media and search engines to decide electoral outcomes. If ‘Google favours one candidate in an election, its impact on undecided voters could easily determine the election’s outcome,’ Epstein said this month. It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of the US population now gets its news through digital intermediaries such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. The reach of potential influence is therefore immense.

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