Search Engine Manipulation Effect

The Computers Corner

By Charles Miller

I recently got into a heated political discussion with a good friend. That seems to be the nature of most political discussions lately. At one point I told her, “You have been spending way too much time inside your search engine bubble!” That proved to be a fortunate segue into another subject because naturally she wanted to know, “What’s a search engine bubble?”

Many online services such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter quietly return customized search results based on the user’s activity history. This leads to an effect called a “bubble.” When search algorithms selectively guess what information a user would like to see based on information about the user’s search history and online behavior, a level of bias is introduced. These search results are skewed to show information that agrees with the user’s perceived viewpoint and effectively isolates that user inside a protective bubble that tends to exclude, or at least deemphasize, views contrary to the user’s own.

An absurdly extreme example of the effect of a search engine bubble would be if you went to a friend’s house and borrowed their computer to do a search for the words “crooked Hillary.” The first search results might be references to Secretary Clinton’s negotiating a successful cease-fire between Israel and Hamas followed by articles detailing Hillary Clinton’s contributions to improving health care. At the bottom of the list might be a mention of her recent scolding from the FBI for “extremely careless” handling of government documents, and you might have to scroll to the bottom of the search results to find any mention of cattle futures. These could be the search results on a computer belonging to a Democrat whose search bubble created an excessive degree of left-leaning political bias.

If you repeated this experiment again with a different friend’s computer and this time searched for “Trump racist misogamist,” the search results could return articles about how many jobs Donald Trump has created during his successful business career and reviews of his popular television show. Any articles mentioning allegations of bigotry or racism would be further down in the search results if the computer you used for the search belongs to a Republican or other right-winger.

It’s granted that you are not likely to ever see such excessive examples of a search engine bubble, unless you have some truly extreme left-wing or right-wing friends. The bias found in most search engine results is subtler, a lot subtler, but the bias is there, nevertheless.

The National Academy of Sciences terms this “search engine manipulation effect” (SEME) and asserts it’s one of the largest behavioral effects ever discovered. The study estimated that this could change the outcome of upwards of 25 percent of national elections worldwide. Google, Facebook, and other social networks, of course, want to deny having that much influence.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel de Allende since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.


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