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Altering Google search results can pose a real threat to democracy as it has a major impact on the voting preferences of undecided voters and could swing a close election, according to a new landmark study analysing the just concluded Lok Sabha elections in India.
The study conducted in India in recent weeks suggests that Google has the power to fix elections "without anyone being the wiser".
This is possible because of the power that search rankings have on people's opinions, researchers said.
Studies show that the higher the rank, the more people trust the result, which is why companies are spending billions now to push their products higher.
"So could highly-ranked search results that make Arvind Kejriwal look better than Narendra Modi drive votes to Kejriwal?" researchers set out to determine.
In research conducted last year in the US, researchers found that search rankings biased in favour of a candidate could push the preferences of undecided voters towards that candidate by 15 per cent or more.
Now, in a new study conducted in recent weeks with more than 2,000 undecided voters throughout India, the researchers have shown that votes in India can easily be pushed towards one candidate or another by about 12 per cent - double that amount in some demographic groups - enough to determine the outcomes of many close races.
"This is a very serious matter - a real threat to democracy," said Dr Robert Epstein, lead researcher in the study and Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology in California.
"If two candidates were both trying to push their rankings higher, they would be competing, and that's fine. But if Google, which has a monopoly on search in India, were to favour one candidate, it could easily put that candidate in office by manipulating search rankings, and no one could counter what they were doing.
"Even if without human intervention the company's search algorithm favoured one candidate, thousands of votes would still be driven to that candidate," said Epstein.
In the new study, participants were randomly assigned to groups in which search rankings favoured either Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi, or Modi.
Real search rankings and web pages were used, and people were asked to research all the candidates just as they would on Google. The only difference between the groups was the order in which the search results were displayed.