A new study shows that Google rankings can dramatically sway ill-informed voters in upcoming elections.

Robert Epstein, a former editor of Psychology Today and noted Google critic, conducted an experiment with Indian voters. In the experiment, he was able to sway support for candidates of India’s national election “15 percent or more” by manipulating the rankings of information that a mock search engine presented to participants.

Around 2,000 eligible voters were allowed to search information about candidates using the experimental search engine, which manipulated the rankings of various web pages in order to favor one candidate or another. As expected, few participants looked beyond the top few results, and barely any looked to the second page of results.

“It confirms that in a real election, you can really shift voter preferences really dramatically,” argues Epstein.

Epstein’s study should be taken with a grain of salt. In reality, voters are inundated with campaign messages, canvassers, and email spam. Anyone who’s paying enough attention to search for information is also likely to get flooded with all sorts of other messages, diluting the effect of the search engine alone. This is why cutting-edge election research, in contrast to Epstein’s study, tries to match experimental messaging with actual data on how citizens vote.

However, Epstein’s study is important for understanding how clever search engine optimization ninjas can manipulate campaigns without much public interest or destroy an up-and-coming candidate. In 2003, noted gay critic and presidential candidate Rick Santorum was smeared by a campaign that urged people to link “Santorum” to a website that ironically (and nastily) redefined his name. Eventually, the campaign succeeded in raising that website high in the search results for his name. Did that cost Santorum the Republican nomination? Probably not, but it’s a sign of what could be done with search results.

Search engine manipulation probably isn’t a significant factor in American Presidential races. But, deep monied interests, such as the billionaire Koch Brothers, have started to take an interest in small town races.

In these low-turnout, low-information issues, it’s possible for SEO masters to work their dark magic much more effectively — possibly swaying voters in the end, Epstein’s research suggests.

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