A recent scientific paper shows us why Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL) is one of the best investments around these days. The paper, which bears the boring title The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections, reminds us why Google is so rich, so powerful, so influential and so valuable.
The basic thesis presented in the paper is that Google’s searches have become more influential than any other kind of media—so influential that one of the study’s authors, Robert Epstein, thinks they could determine the winner of the next U.S. presidential election. Here is something that Epstein recently wrote in Politico that should give us pause for thought:
“America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.”
We need to pay attention to this because Epstein is not some conspiracy theory crank hiding in a trailer in the woods. He is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor of Psychology Today. The paper, coauthored by Ronald E. Robertson, was published in a prestigious scientific journal: The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Search Engine Manipulation Effect – Google’s Secret Weapon
Epstein and Robertson’s thesis is based upon serious social science research with 4,500 people. They conducted experiments that clearly demonstrated that the results of search and search algorithms affected voters’ opinions of potential candidates.
They even demonstrated the Search Engine Manipulation Effect’s existence in the real world by surveying 2,000 undecided voters in India during that nation’s parliamentary elections last year. Here is how Epstein described the outcome of that experiment:
“We showed that search rankings could boost the proportion of people favoring any candidate by more than 20 percent—more than 60 percent in some demographic groups.”
He also noted:
“Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google decided the winner of the Indian election.”
The implications here are obvious: If the results of Google searches can determine elections, they can determine other decisions. Google could affect decisions on almost everything: insurance policies, investments, car purchase, house purchase, which movies to see, which restaurants to go to and public perceptions of virtually anything.
If Epstein and Robertson are correct, the power and influence Google has is staggering. Their thesis also makes Google’s share price at closing on August 21, 2015, $644.03, seem like a bargain. Google is now the most powerful media on the planet; nothing else holds a candle to it—not blogs, not newspapers, not even television.
How the Search Engine Manipulation Effect Works and How It Could Determine the Outcome of Elections
Naturally, some of you are probably wondering how the search engine manipulation effect works and how it could affect election results. Here is my take on how it might work:
A would-be voter sits down at the computer, goes to Google and types in the name Donald Trump. Under the way Google is supposed to work, the surfer would see the dozen or so most popular search results for that name, probably news articles about the Donald’s latest antics on the campaign trail and some paid advertising.
Now what would happen if somebody at the Googleplex tweaked the search algorithm so the top five or 10 search results would be news articles about Trump University? Trump University was a controversial educational effort the Donald was involved in a few years back that some critics have denounced as a fraud. The would-be voter would come away from the search with the impression that the Donald is nothing but a conman.
The same thing could be done to any other candidate, such as Hillary Clinton. Imagine what would happen if all the Hillary search results were about the email scandal or, worse, old news stories about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. To make matters worse, a clever Google engineer could take things further and create an algorithm that provided nothing but results about the Lewinsky scandal every time somebody typed the words Hillary and women’s rights into a search engine. Hillary could go from being a feminist icon to a joke almost overnight.
An even more potent weapon here could be Google’s YouTube. What happens if the first video surfers searching for information about Trump see is of the wrestling match he was involved in with Vince McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment? That could be followed by this gem from Wrestlemania 23: Donald Trump meets The Boogeyman, which would do little to help his election efforts.
As you can see, Google has the power to destroy a political career overnight with its search engine and YouTube. This not imagination here. The reputation of an American icon, Bill Cosby, was shredded by one YouTube video of a Hannibal Buress comedy routine mocking the Cos as a rapist. How long would Hillary’s career survive a barrage of old Jay Leno monologues about the Lewinsky affair?
Google’s Power Could Backfire
Naturally, the existence of this effect raises a host of legal, ethical, political, philosophical and practical questions for Google and its investors. Should one search engine be allowed to control so much of the search engine traffic? Searchenginewatch just reported that Google generates 35.8% of the online referrals. What about other search engines, such as Microsoft’s Bing and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), which now generates 38% of the referrals, more than Google?
One has to wonder how long it will be before politicians and regulators take note of this and call for limits on Google’s “power.” If either party wins by a narrow margin in next year’s election, Congressional investigations and public outcries are sure to follow, particularly if a controversial candidate wins or loses by a hair.
I imagine that socialists such as Bernie Sanders might start calling for Google’s nationalization at some point because of this. Others might demand regulation or an antitrust action of some sort. This could lead to political and legal battles, particularly in the United States, where the First Amendment places severe limits on the government’s ability to control information.
Google Is Now the Most Powerful and Influential Media on Earth
Sergey Brin and Larry Page are going to have to respond to Epstein and Robertson’s thesis. If they do not, they could be setting themselves up for a world of hurt, particularly if politicians start looking for a scapegoat for their own failures.
Even with these questions, Epstein and Robertson have done a great job reminding us why Google is such a great investment and a fantastic piece of technology. It has become the world’s premier information processor and platform, a solution capable of dominating many industries, including news, lending, entertainment, insurance and retail.
One fact is crystal clear: Google is now the most powerful and influential media company in the world for better or worse. Epstein and Robertson have proven it, which makes Google a great investment. If you buy one Internet stock right now, buy Google; it is still a bargain.