Search rankings that favoured one candidate over the other may have had an effect on how people voted in the recently concluded national elections. A study conducted by the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology (AIBRT) on over 2,000 undecided Indian voters showed that about 12% of them could be ‘pushed’ towards a candidate based on better visibility on Google search. The study also found that in the case of certain demographics and voters from states like West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Delhi, 24 to 33% of people could be swayed over to a candidate based on search rankings.
Based on these results, the study concluded that Google indeed had the power to “fix” elections to a certain extent and could actually affect closely fought electoral battles.
The research consisted of assigning the undecided voters into groups which differed from each other based on search rankings that favoured Narendra Modi (BJP), Rahul Gandhi (Congress) or Arvind Kejriwal (AAP) respectively. The results were displayed using real web pages and the respondents were asked to research candidates based on these results just like they would in real life.
While speaking about the study, Dr. Robert Epstein, lead researcher and Senior Research Psychologist at AIBRT said, "This is a very serious matter — a real threat to democracy. If two candidates were both trying to push their rankings higher, they would be competing, and that's fine. But if Google, which has a monopoly on search in India, were to favour one candidate, it could easily put that candidate in office by manipulating search rankings, and no one could counter what they were doing.”
“Even if without human intervention the company's search algorithm favoured one candidate, thousands of votes would still be driven to that candidate."
A similar study conducted last year in the US showed that about 15% or more American voters could be affected by biased search rankings towards or against candidates.