Quartz | 27 April 2016
Because I conduct research on how the Internet affects elections, journalists have lately been asking me about the primaries. Here are the two most common questions I’ve been getting:
Do Google’s search rankings affect how people vote?
How well does Google Trends predict the winner of each primary?
My answer to the first question is: Probably, but no one knows for sure. From research I have been conducting in recent years with Ronald E. Robertson, my associate at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, on the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME, pronounced “seem”), we know that when higher search results make one candidate look better than another, an enormous number of votes will be driven toward the higher-ranked candidate—up to 80% of undecided voters in some demographic groups. This is partly because we have all learned to trust high-ranked search results, but it is mainly because we are lazy; search engine users generally click on just the top one or two items.
Because no one actually tracks search rankings, however—they are ephemeral and personalized, after all, which makes them virtually impossible to track—and because no whistleblowers have yet come forward from any of the search engine companies, We cannot know for sure whether search rankings are consistently favoring one candidate or another. we cannot know for sure whether search rankings are consistently favoring one candidate or another. This means we also cannot know for sure how search rankings are affecting elections. We know the power they have to do so, but that’s it.
As for the question about Google Trends, for a while I was giving a mindless, common-sense answer: Well, I said, Google Trends tells you about search activity, and if lots more people are searching for “Donald Trump” than for “Ted Cruz” just before a primary, then more people will probably vote for Trump.
Articles in legitimate publications, including TIME, have said the same thing. When you run the numbers, search activity seems to be a pretty good predictor of voting. On primary day in New Hampshire this year, search traffic on Google Trends was highest for Trump, followed by John Kasich, then Cruz—and so went the vote. But careful studies of the predictive power of search activity have actually gotten mixed results. A 2011 study by researchers at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, for example, found that Google Trends was a poor predictor of the outcomes of the 2008 and 2010 elections. Why are we struggling so hard to predict elections when Google actually knows exactly how we are going to vote?
So much for Trends. But then I got to thinking: Why are we struggling so hard to figure out how to use Trends or tweets or shares to predict elections when Google actually knows exactly how we are going to vote. Impossible, you say? Think again.
Raise your hand—or tap the spacebar key, or whatever—if you have ever told a friend or relative who your favorite candidate is in, say, a Gmail message (Gmail is a Google product). If you don’t use Gmail, what about in a message to someone who uses Gmail? If you are a Chrome or Android user (both Google products), maybe you said, “Feel the Bern” or “Trump rules!” in a direct message on Instagram, a tweet on Twitter, or a Facebook message, all of which Google can easily “scrape.” Google is the King of Tracking, monitoring what we do on more than 60 platforms, 24 hours a day. Maybe you wrote a cool essay about Hillary using Google Docs or used an Android app to donate to her campaign. Maybe you signed up to attend a Cruz rally using Chrome. Maybe you put “Cruz rally” on a calendar you downloaded from Google Play. Maybe you used Waze (another Google product) to direct you to the rally, looked up directions using Google Maps, or just brought your Android device with you to the rally. Maybe you told someone about how awesome the rally was in a phone conversation that was being routed by Google Voice.
I could go on.
Most major companies track us these days, but Google is the King of Tracking, monitoring what we do on more than 60 platforms, 24 hours a day, and consolidating that information into highly structured personal profiles they use to send us targeted ads. All outgoing and incoming Gmail messages are stored, even the drafts you never intended to send, along with transcripts of all Voice conversations, the content of all Docs, all search terms used, websites visited, routes taken, places visited, purchases made, and on and on.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is incredibly easy and 10 is incredibly hard, how easy do you think it would be for Google to tabulate (a) who is planning to vote on election day and (b) whom they are planning to vote for? If you said “1,” raise your hand again, because that is how easy it would be.
Do Google employees—either seriously or just for fun—ever compute those numbers? Not the silly Trend numbers they release to the public, but the hard, cold, actual voting numbers? Given the company’s strong interest in politics, it is hard to imagine that they aren’t updating those numbers daily, if not hourly.
This leaves us with two questions, one small and practical and the other big and weird.
Voting is such a hassle—the parking, the lines, the ID checks. Maybe we should just let Google announce the winners. The small, practical question is: How is Google using those numbers? Might they be sharing them with their preferred presidential candidate, for example? That is not unlawful, after all, and Google executives have taken a hands-on role in past presidential campaigns. The Wall Street Journal reported, for example, that Eric Schmidt, head of Google at that time, was personally overseeing Barack Obama’s programming team at his campaign headquarters the night before the 2012 election.
And the big, weird question is: Why are we even bothering to vote?
Voting is such a hassle—the parking, the lines, the ID checks. Maybe we should all stay home and just let Google announce the winners.
That may sound absurd, but in The Circle, Dave Eggers’ recent prophetic novel about a Google-like company, the American people do exactly that: They passively turn over all political power to their ubiquitous search-engine company, which they trust almost pathologically.
Are we a bit too trusting of our own ubiquitous search-engine company? Google certainly seems to know much more about us—including precisely how most of us will vote—than we know about Google.