For all the talk about Macedonian teenagers and #FakeNews (used exclusively to describe anything bad about Hillary Clinton) tilting the scales of the 2016 election, a new study by four academics, Robert Epstein (American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology), Ronald E. Robertson (Northeastern University) and Samantha J. Shepherd and Shu Zhang (American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology), finds something completely different.
Using a sample of “undecideds” selected before the 2016 election, the news that was generated for them by Yahoo and Google was examined.
1) Issue: Were search results provided by search engines in the U.S. biased toward one candidate or the other? Yes. Based on a sample of 4,045 election-related searches conducted during a 25-day period from October 15 to November 8 (Election Day) using the Google and Yahoo search engines through the Firefox browser, we found that search results were, on average, biased to favor Hillary Clinton on all of those days. (Note: In the graph below, values above 0 show a Clinton bias, and values below 0 show a Trump bias.)
3) Issue: Was the bias the same for all search engines? No. The level of pro-Clinton bias we found on Google (0.19) was more than twice as high as the level of pro-Clinton bias we found on Yahoo (0.09). The difference between these values was highly statistically significant (p <0.001). ... Interpretation: Our study doesn’t look at this issue directly, but the pattern of demographic differences we found is somewhat consistent with the idea that Big Tech companies show people what they want to see. Note, however, that people in blue (that is, pro-Clinton) states weren’t the only ones to see pro-Clinton search results; people in red (that is, pro-Trump) and swing states did too. 5) Issue: Could search results have been biased simply because people were selecting biased search terms? On a scale from -5 (pro-Trump) to +5 (pro-Clinton), the average bias in people’s search terms was slightly pro-Trump (-0.08). The search terms people used should therefore have yielded a pro-Trump bias in search results, but they did not. 6) Issue: Was there bias before October 15? Yes, although we typically received data from only a few searches per day before that date, so we are less certain of the numbers. Looking at data from 1,050 searches conducted between May 19 and October 14, 2016, we found, on average, a pro-Clinton bias throughout this period (0.17), as well as a pro-Clinton bias in all 10 search positions on the first page of search results. To put this another way, we found evidence of a pro Clinton bias in search rankings over a period of nearly six months before the election.
What the study shows, or purports to show–I’m not a mathematician and I don’t play one on the internet–is that no matter who you were or your political preferences, Google and Yahoo, but particularly Google, was going to serve up stories which were favorable to Hillary Clinton and they did it for at least six months prior to the election.
This is the kicker:
9) Issue: Could the pro-Clinton bias in search results have shifted votes to Mrs. Clinton? A comprehensive study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that biased search rankings can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more – up to 80% in some demographic groups. Extrapolating from the mathematics introduced in this report, in articles published in February 2016 and thereafter, the lead author of the PNAS study predicted that a pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results would, over time, shift at least 2.6 million votes to Clinton. She won the popular vote in the November election by 2,864,974 votes. Without the pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results, her win margin in the popular vote might have been negligible.
The implication of this, if it can be replicated, is pretty clear. Google acted as a political actor n 2016 to fluff for Hillary Clinton. The skewing of search results is clearly a donation in kind to the Clinton campaign and should be investigated by the FEC. But Justice should take a hint from what his happening in Europe and conduct an anti-trust investigation of Google and if warranted, break it up. It is Google, not a horde of young people in Eastern Europe, who poses the direct threat to our form of government.