Robert Epstein: The New Mind Control

An interesting, and worrying, article by Robert Epstein on what he calls the “Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME)” appeared the other day on the site Aeon.

We already knew that the order of results on web search engines, particularly Google, can influence consumers’ choices. It’s not surprising that it also has an effect on political choices. What is surprising is the degree. Epstein and his team conducted experiments which show a very large effect indeed. In one case the proportion of people favouring the search engine’s top-ranked candidate increased by 48.4 per cent, in another by an average of 37.1 percent, and by as much as 80 per cent in some groups.

We also learned in this series of experiments that by reducing the bias just slightly on the first page of search results – specifically, by including one search item that favoured the other candidate in the third or fourth position of the results – we could mask our manipulation so that few or even no people were aware that they were seeing biased rankings. We could still produce dramatic shifts in voting preferences, but we could do so invisibly.
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