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Is Google trying to influence American citizens about politics? When you use Google to search, are you giving them the data to manipulate you as a voter? We know more people, especially young people, get most of their political news using a search engine linking to interesting articles for political information and news about political candidates. Now, imagine that your search results have been manipulated. Dr. Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, researched potential search engine manipulation and voter outcomes. “We’ve discovered that search engine rankings can be manipulated in ways that dramatically change voter preferences,” Epstein told PBS News Hour’s Hari Sreenivasan in a Google Hangout, April 2, 2013.

What Does This Mean?

The implications are huge because manipulating search engine results has the potential to determine who wins and who loses elections, according to Epstein. It means:

  1. A company could influence the outcome of political elections.
  2. No one would know they are being manipulated while it was happening.
  3. There is no way to balance, correct, or counteract what the company manipulating you is doing.
  4. Search engines alone can shift people’s vote.

How Are People Influenced?

Epstein found that search placement affects people’s thinking because we tend to place greater trust in higher-ranked search results. By manipulating those rankings, they are manipulating trust and applying it to political candidates.


Statistically, Epstein proved that voters decide to vote for a candidate and are effected by manipulation a full fifteen percent—that percentage is enough to determine the outcome of an election—worse, no one knows they are being manipulated. Search engine companies can support one candidate over another by altering rankings, and no one will know.

What about Traditional News Media?

The Obama 2012 Presidential campaign turned from using the long time and dominant medium of television advertising in political campaigns to the new “data analytics” to win the election vote by vote. It’s been called microtargeting or microlistening to “mine” for swing voters. The campaign created statistical models that coordinated voter attitudes and preferences on every imaginable issue, and developed software that allowed a national campaign to run like a local election—the interests and preferences of individual voters were data mined and used to swing the vote.

Audiences Turn to Web


  • One “zettabyte” equals the number “1” with 21 zeros at the end.
  • According to Siemens USA, a zettabyte is a full 50 percent MORE than all of the grains of sand on all of the beaches on Earth.
  • If we project to 2020, all of the digital Big Data stored will reach 40 zettabytes.
  • During the span of just one decade, the Big Data collected will increase fifty times.
  • The Big Data collected on EACH man, woman and child will equal the content of 3 million books.

Money spent on online ads through mid-October 2012:

  • Romney Campaign – $26 million
  • Obama Campaign – $52 million

Percentage of votes cast for Obama by early voters in Hamilton, County, Ohio (Battleground State):

  • Obama Campaign Model – 57.68%
  • Actual Result – 57.16%

Television Commercials aired on TV Land (National Cable Level):

  • Obama Campaign 1,710
  • Romney Campaign 0

Obviously, the Obama Campaign successfully built virtual profiles of swing voters they believed were “in play” or could be swayed. Big Data was secured by getting data from vendors like Google and the campaign paired that data to potential swing voters. After the election, key investor, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, enabled those working in the campaign to continue data mining by keeping the team together under the new organization, Civic Analytics. The company only works for democratic candidates.

Is Big Data Smart Data?

Processes for collecting information (Big Data) is already in place. Capturing Big Data is one thing; analyzing it and making sense of it is another.  This is the next transition–understanding the data collected and creating usable reports and ideas that turn Big Data into Smart Data.


  1. Read the Summary of a paper presented by Robert Epstein, Ph.D., and Ronald E. Robertson, Abstract: Democracy at Risk: Manipulating Search Rankings Can Shift Voter’s Preferences Substantially http://aibrt.org/downloads/EPSTEIN_and_Robertson_2013-Democracy_at_Risk-APS-summary-5-13.pdf
  2. Read the article in MIT Technology Review, How President Obama’s Campaign Used Big Data to Rally Individual Voters by Sasha Issenberghttp://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/509026/how-obamas-team-used-big-data-to-rally-voters/
  3. Write a One-page response addressing the issue of Big Data and the manipulation of search engine rankings to dramatically change voter preferences. Is this the future of media in campaigns and elections?


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