Americans go to the polls on November 8. Some 200 million registered voters across the 50 United States get to choose their next president and vice president.
In addition, elections will be held for all 435 voting-member seats in the US House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the US Senate. Twelve state governorships, two territorial governorships, and numerous other state and local elections will also be contested.
Of course, most international attention is focused on the bitter contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
In mid 2016, Trump raised the possibility of a ‘rigged’ elections. President Obama quickly and resolutely dismissed this claim: in the US, individual states and cities — and not the federal government — determine voting their own systems.
Others have pointed out how the voting machine landscape is a patchwork of different systems, from touch screens and ballot marking systems to old-fashioned pencil and paper. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to manipulate the election in a coordinated way.
Meanwhile, another question is receiving more attention: can the giant internet companies like Facebook and Google influence how people vote in an election?
It is already proven that Facebook reminders can motivate more people to go out and vote. In the 2010 US congressional elections (known for typically low voter turnout), Facebook sent messages to 61 million Americans, reminding them to vote and listing friends who already voted. As a result, researchers estimated that 340,000 more Americans voted in that election.
Given how much Facebook knows of our personal likes and dislikes, can that inside knowledge be offered to the highest bidder? This worries cyber researchers.
One scenario: lobbyists pay Facebook tens of millions of dollars to target those users with certain ideological viewpoint with a reminder to go out and vote. In a closely contested election, that nudge can be decisive…
Google has even greater potential to influence elections through the use of selective weighting in their search results. Google acknowledges adjusting the algorithm around 600 times a year, but the process is secret – and there is no regulatory oversight.
As more people get their news through Google feeds and searches, Google has unregulated power to decide what comes on top of search results.
“Search rankings have this powerful effect on voters for the same reason that they have on consumer behaviour: the higher the ranking, the more people believe and trust the content, mistakenly assuming that some impartial and omniscient genie has carefully evaluated each web page and put the best ones first,” says US psychologist Dr Robert Epstein.
He calls this the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME). In an article published in August 2015 in politico.com, he wrote: “Because SEME is virtually invisible as a form of social influence, because the effect is so large and because there are currently no specific regulations anywhere in the world that would prevent Google from using and abusing this technique, we believe SEME is a serious threat to the democratic system of government.”
In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the US, Epstein and team were able to boost the proportion of people who favoured a given candidate by between 37 and 63% after just one search session. “The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger,” he pointed out.
Dr Epstein studied SEME during the Indian general election of 2014. His experiment was conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters thssssroughout India.
“Even here, with real voters who were highly familiar with the candidates and who were being bombarded with campaign rhetoric every day, we showed that search rankings could boost the proportion of people favouring any candidate by more than 20% —more than 60% in some demographic groups.” (Full article: https://goo.gl/leR4YG)
Whoever wins in US elections, these concerns need greater scrutiny and debate in the coming months and years.
Just this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on major internet platforms to divulge the secrets of their algorithms, arguing that their lack of transparency endangers debating culture. Taming web algorithms could be democracy’s next big challenge.
Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer, blogger and development communication consultant. He tweets from @NalakaG