WASHINGTON – 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 saga of the persistent San Diego psychologist versus the tech giant is a long-running one, full of twists. As Big Data shapes our opinions in ways scholars are only beginning to comprehend, his work has increasingly caught attention.
“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.
“We turn to these efficient technologies to do almost everything these days without knowing why we see what we see from them, or what data is collected about us and how it is being used,” he said.
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.”
Google dismisses his research as the work of a misguided amateur. Company Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in December that Google had investigated Epstein’s findings and found his methodology flawed.
Company officials, while declining to comment about Epstein on the record, offered background material asserting that their algorithms are politically blind and respond to searches with news content based on its timeliness, relevance and authoritativeness.
In his latest study, which he plans to present in April at the 99th annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association, 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.
Google executives, for their part, argue it would be corporate suicide to use their influence over voters to sway elections.
But many analysts say that is not the point. 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.