“You can push knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior among people who are vulnerable any way you want using search rankings.” – Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology
The advantages of online reputation management for politicians are obvious. Voters will attempt to educate themselves about candidates. Most will likely use search engines to conduct this research and form an opinion on candidates based on their findings. The normal rules of online reputation management do not directly translate into politics because of the nature of elections and the sensational, somewhat sleazy strategies of most successful campaign managers. Journalists have incentive to scrutinize every detail from a candidate’s past and present it in the least favorable context. Politicians can expect to be under constant attack from opposition powered by giant media companies. Because this is the modus operandi of bi-partisan American politics, those who consume information about candidates are constantly wary of any attempt to ‘spin’ facts. This atmosphere makes online reputation management for politicians challenging; there is one caveat.
A 2013 study by the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology made two interesting discoveries: First, the outcomes of real elections can be determined by manipulating search engine results and second, the manipulation can be accomplished without people being aware of it. Indeed, changes in search engine results pages can have drastic impacts on the outcome of elections and online reputation management for politicians is becoming a cornerstone of successful campaigning.
Google has Buckets, and You’re in Several of Them
Epstein’s study concluded beyond question that manipulating search results for queries about a candidate will affect the outcome of an election. In fact, the study goes so far as to state “that unregulated search rankings could pose a significant threat to a democratic system of government.” The parameters of the conclusion require that an election be a small margin and ‘swing votes’ be available.
“Given that search companies are currently unregulated, our results could be viewed as a cause for concern, suggesting that [search engines] could manipulate the outcomes of elections in ways that would be difficult to detect. And whereas donating to campaigns is expensive, altering search results costs nothing.” – Robert Epstein
Do you use Android, Chrome, Google, or Gmail? Do your friends ever email you things about politics? Do you go to CNN.com? Follow Fox News on Twitter? Did you change your public Facebook photo to look like a rainbow last month? Google hires geniuses who can teach computers to determine where you stand politically with a great deal of accuracy, and present search results (and ads) that will be more relevant to you based on this information. A recent article on Wired quoted Epstein saying “If executives at Google had decided to study the things we’re studying, they could easily have been flipping elections to their liking with no one having any idea.” The idea that any single for-profit entity could have so much power in a society is rather Orwellian, but it’s a bold accusation to make with no evidence and somewhat beside the point. We assume Google’s algorithm is designed to be non-partisan while we know for a fact that online reputation management companies are contracted to perform services that almost invariably involve tinkering with search engine results. The fact is that search engine results can be manipulated to change election outcomes.
Timing of Information
Any decent SEO could imagine a strategy to temporarily move search results around for politicians. As Wired pointed out: “In the presidential campaign high season, whoever the Republican and Democratic nominees are will already have high page ranks because they’ll have a huge number of inbound links, one of Google’s key metrics.” The article goes on to report that placement in search results was of noticeable importance and recency of information was a very effective tool in swaying swing votes towards one candidate over another. This means that online reputation management for politicians is a necessary part of any campaign and offers a huge advantage over competition using traditional campaigning methods.
A Facebook study in 2010 sought to determine the efficacy of Facebook marketing in convincing citizens to vote in a congressional election. The results were fascinating as the unbiased message reached a total of 61 million people and generated 340,000 additional votes. Perhaps even more interestingly, the social tweaking of the message to include users’ close friends who had already voted increased the likelihood that the message would compel a user to vote by a factor of four. Wired asserts, “Using the extensive information the social network maintains on all its subscribers, it could hypothetically push specific messaging to supporters or foes of specific legislation or candidates.” We will again assume that the company is nonpartisan and conducted this study exclusively for research purposes. Even if this premise is accurate, advertisers are invariably biased. Facebook makes (a lot of) money by selling information to advertisers; anyone in the industry could feasibly design a slightly more rudimentary advertising campaign to emulate the outcome and target the most receptive swing voters with biased information about either candidate. Heavy budgets targeted at ‘purple’ states in the days immediately preceding an election would be very likely to generate more votes based on these findings.
Free Will and Big Data
The findings of Epstein’s research are somewhat disconcerting because it is feasible for a company to manipulate the population into making political decisions. This is not a new phenomenon. After all, Fox News is always the first one to point out that they are definitely not biased. There is no compelling evidence to suggest that companies like Google and Facebook are actively attempting to sway voters, but there is evidence to suggest that these platforms can be utilized by both parties to increase the success of a campaign, generate votes, and educate voters on legislation and candidates. Online reputation management for politicians is becoming more important than traditional methods of campaigning and will continue to become more important in the future.
If you are a politician who is seeking help with a campaign, click here to learn more how an online reputation management company can help.
Corbyn, Zoe. "Facebook Experiment Boosts US Voter Turnout."Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.
Critchlow, Will. "Online Reputation Management for Politicians: 7 Reasons Why It's so Hard | Distilled." Distilled. Distilled, 16 May 2008. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.
Epstein, Robert, and Ronald Robertson. "Democracy at Risk: Manipulating Search Rankings Can Shift Voters’ Preferences Substantially Without Their Awareness." American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (2013). Http://aibrt.org. American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Web. 1 Aug. 2015. .
Rogers, Adam. "Google’s Search Algorithm Could Steal the Presidency."Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 6 Aug. 2015. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.