Breaking the Information Monopoly?

 

German_Monopoly_board_in_the_middle_of_a_game (1)This story is not yet trending on Google news. (I’ll be curious to see if it does, although I won’t draw any conclusions from it.)

Robert Epstein is a research psychologist. (I’ve drawn this conclusion by using Google to look him up and peruse his publications.) Here’s his Wikipedia page. (It was the top-ranked entry when I searched for “research psychologist Robert Epstein.”)

It says he was born on June 19, 1953. He’s “an American psychologist, professor, author, and journalist.” It also says has a doctorate from Harvard. I believe all of that, although I’ve confirmed none of it independently. I also believe this, though I haven’t confirmed it independently:

In 2012, Epstein publicly disputed with Google Search over a security warning placed on links to his website. His website, which features mental health screening tests, was blocked for serving malware that could infect visitors to the site. Epstein emailed “Larry Page, Google’s chief executive; David Drummond, Google’s legal counsel; Dr. Epstein’s congressman; and journalists from The New York TimesThe Washington PostWired, and Newsweek.” In it, Epstein threatened legal action if the warning concerning his website was not removed, and denied that any problems with his website existed. Several weeks later, Epstein admitted his website had been hacked, but still blamed Google for tarnishing his name and not helping him find the infection.

Epstein has just published a piece in Politico warning that Google might throw the 2016 election:

America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.

Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson.

You knew about this research already, of course. I’ve brought it up before.

Funny thing is that the first four or five times I saw a reference to him, it didn’t occur to me to look him up. After seeing this reported again today, I finally decided to look into it more carefully.

Here’s the full paper on PNAS: The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections. His co-author is Ronald E. Robertson; if you throw his name in Google, you’ll find his LinkedIn page first, and you probably won’t do any further searching. (I basically believe everything Robertson says about himself there, too, although I’ve confirmed none of it.) My willingness to believe what I find in the top-ranked search result confirms what they suggest in their paper:

Studies using eye-tracking technology have shown that people generally scan search engine results in the order in which the results appear and then fixate on the results that rank highest, even when lower-ranked results are more relevant to their search. Higher-ranked links also draw more clicks, and consequently people spend more time on Web pages associated with higher-ranked search results. A recent analysis of ∼300 million clicks on one search engine found that 91.5% of those clicks were on the first page of search results, with 32.5% on the first result and 17.6% on the second. The study also reported that the bottom item on the first page of results drew 140% more clicks than the first item on the second page. These phenomena occur apparently because people trust search engine companies to assign higher ranks to the results best suited to their needs, even though users generally have no idea how results get ranked.

That more or less describes what I did when I decided that I’d like to know more about their research, so no conflict with intuition there.

I’ve now read the whole paper. I do think they’re raising a serious concern. That said, there’s a limit to the amount of research I can do quickly. You see, when I search for more information about Robert Epstein, for example, I hit a wall very quickly:

Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more

Just curious: What happens when those of you who aren’t in Europe search under these researchers’ names? Do you learn the same things I do? Do you draw similar conclusions?

 

Members have made 82 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of Mike LaRoche Thatcher

    I didn’t run into that warning for Epstein, but the search for Robertson turned up similarly few results.

    Is it certain that Google itself is responsible for the search results? I ask because I’m reminded of the Google-bombing campaign of a few years ago directed at former college football star and ESPN sportscaster Craig James. For a while, when you would do a search using his name, among the top results were bogus news stories accusing him of having killed five hookers during his time as a football player at Southern Methodist University. It even spawned a number of Internet memes using the acronym CJK5H.

    • #1
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:37 am
  2. Profile photo of Mike LaRoche Thatcher

    There was a political consequence to the Google-bombing campaign against James. In 2012, he campaigned for the Republican nomination here in Texas to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. At the time, the bogus stories were still appearing at the top of every Google search, which likely didn’t help his campaign. Who was the winner of that GOP primary, and the general election? Ted Cruz! Hah.

    • #2
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:41 am
  3. Profile photo of Mike Rapkoch Member

    Googling Robert Epstein kicked up his homepage, a Wikipedia entry, and a number of articles from publications like Psychology Today. All I got for Robertson was his LinkedIn address.

    Typically, I first scan the top entry, especially if I’m looking for general info. I skim down right away if I’m looking for something specific. Just an example: I was looking for an article written a couple of years ago by Theodore Dalrymple. I didn’t bother with Wikipedia or anything like that. However, I really didn’t need to because I already know his basic bio and my only interest is in his books.

    In terms of politics, I draw the tentative conclusion that we tend to support those politicians that have best explained themselves, and offered ideas that make sense to us. Google may help us gather more info, but I don’t know that it can actually sway an election. It could cause confusion in polling, though, as a responder may think first about the ad/link he saw just a few minutes ago. That could also happen if the last thing he sees before entering the voting booth is a Facebook ad on his iPhone.

    • #3
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:41 am
  4. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Mike LaRoche: Is it certain that Google itself is responsible for the search results?

    Well, this is how Google explains it. They use “over 200 factors,” you see.

    Google’s own response is clearly less than a masterpiece of transparency. And that’s not a surprise: They’re a business.

    But they’re also now a monopoly. I think the authors are very correct to be concerned about the implications of this.

    • #4
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:48 am
  5. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Mike Rapkoch: Google may help us gather more info, but I don’t know that it can actually sway an election.

    Why wouldn’t it? The evidence that search ranking dramatically affects consumer behavior is overwhelming. Just a priori, why wouldn’t it make perfect sense to assume that undecided voters would be hugely swayed by this?

    • #5
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:55 am
  6. Profile photo of Mike LaRoche Thatcher

    Yes, I think you’re right to be concerned. I suppose the answer is to have other tech entrepreneurs step up and try to beat Google. Their closest competitor, from what I can determine, is Microsoft’s Bing search engine. What other possible solutions to Google’s monopoly might there be?

    • #6
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:55 am
  7. Profile photo of Joseph Eagar Member

    No American corporation would ever risk manipulating the public this way. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google has internal procedures to avoid the mere appearance that it influences elections.

    The political risk is simply too extreme, especially for corporations that act as de facto public utilities and are thus allowed to monopolize their markets. Google doesn’t just have to worry that American politicians will pass punitive laws or that foreign government will restrict Google’s access to their markets, it also has to worry about antitrust litigation, and not only in the U.S.

    • #7
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:56 am
  8. Profile photo of Dan Hanson Thatcher

    Anyone remember an article a few years back that said Google had enlisted Al Gore to help them optimize their global warming searches?

    Al Gore has been a ‘senior advisor’ to Google since 2001.

    • #8
    • August 25, 2015 at 12:58 am
  9. Profile photo of Mike Rapkoch Member

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mike Rapkoch: Google may help us gather more info, but I don’t know that it can actually sway an election.

    Why wouldn’t it? The evidence that search ranking dramatically affects consumer behavior is overwhelming. Just a priori, why wouldn’t it make perfect sense to assume that undecided voters would be hugely swayed by this?

    I’m hoping for the best. I’m trying to temper my inherent pessimism. There is a lot of solid data that establishes that advertising does more than merely inform, as Milton Friedman seemed to think, but you are right that since consumers can be manipulated, why not voters? Here’s an interesting article by William C. Cavanaugh that addressed the question of whether the modern idea that freedom is about choice and lack of government control, or whether freedom is the power to choose the right thing. I’ve argued this many times, but will again suggest that the lack of a philosophical psychology which truly seeks to identify man’s shared nature, leaves us open to manipulation because we have no central understanding of ourselves and our purpose. Without that, choice is all that matters and we’ll tend to choose at a superficial level–especially if we are fed live bait.

    • #9
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:10 am
  10. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Joseph Eagar: No American corporation would ever risk manipulating the public this way.

    If I’m concerned about being the object of antitrust litigation and have the power to influence an election, I have two perfectly rational strategies available to me: 1) Do nothing that would inspire anti-trust litigation. 2) support candidates who are friendly to my position.

    • #10
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:15 am
  11. Profile photo of Mike Rapkoch Member

    Mike Rapkoch:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mike Rapkoch: Google may help us gather more info, but I don’t know that it can actually sway an election.

    Why wouldn’t it? The evidence that search ranking dramatically affects consumer behavior is overwhelming. Just a priori, why wouldn’t it make perfect sense to assume that undecided voters would be hugely swayed by this?

    I’m hoping for the best. I’m trying to temper my inherent pessimism. There is a lot of solid data that establishes that advertising does more than merely inform, as Milton Friedman seemed to think, but you are right that since consumers can be manipulated, why not voters? Here’s an interesting article by William C. Cavanaugh that addressed the question of whether the modern idea that freedom is about choice and lack of government control, or whether freedom is the power to choose the right thing. I’ve argued this many times, but will again suggest that the lack of a philosophical psychology which truly seeks to identify man’s shared nature, leaves us open to manipulation because we have no central understanding of ourselves and our purpose. Without that, choice is all that matters and we’ll tend to choose at a superficial level–especially if we are fed live bait.

    I also should have seen that my Dalrymple example actually proves your “low information hypothesis.” I move to specifics immediately in the Dalrymple example, I skip over the preliminaries precisely because I already have enough info with which to judge that his writings are important. So, too, with a well informed voter. If he’s already done some solid initial investigation he’ll know what to look for in evaluating his candidate and in critiquing opponents. He’ll be far less subject to manipulation.

    • #11
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:20 am
  12. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Mike Rapkoch: Here’s an interesting article by William C. Cavanaugh that addressed the question of whether the modern idea that freedom is about choice and lack of government control, o

    I think there’s a missing hyperlink there? (I could Google it, but I’m experimenting for the day — I want to see what happens when I don’t use Google as the filter through which I view the world. First thing to note: it’s so inconvenient that I doubt I’ll hold out for the whole day.)

    • #12
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:37 am
  13. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Dan Hanson:Anyone remember an article a few years back that said Google had enlisted Al Gore to help them optimize their global warming searches?

    Al Gore has been a ‘senior advisor’ to Google since 2001.

    Again, I’d either have to check on Google … or how would I find that article? Seriously, how would I ever find it any other way?

    • #13
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:39 am
  14. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Mike LaRoche: I suppose the answer is to have other tech entrepreneurs step up and try to beat Google. Their closest competitor, from what I can determine, is Microsoft’s Bing search engine. What other possible solutions to Google’s monopoly might there be?

    That’s the only solution, but it will take something really innovative: no one can beat Google through imitation; they’ve got too much of a head start.

    I suspect India’s the place where we’d be most likely to see that kind of breakthrough. That’s certainly (by far) where the most concentrated number of entrepreneurs working in this field will be in the coming half century.

    • #14
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:44 am
  15. Profile photo of Titus Techera Member

    Mike LaRoche:Yes, I think you’re right to be concerned. I suppose the answer is to have other tech entrepreneurs step up and try to beat Google. Their closest competitor, from what I can determine, is Microsoft’s Bing search engine. What other possible solutions to Google’s monopoly might there be?

    Maybe Facebook is their biggest competitor.

    • #15
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:48 am
  16. Profile photo of Mike Rapkoch Member

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mike Rapkoch: Here’s an interesting article by William C. Cavanaugh that addressed the question of whether the modern idea that freedom is about choice and lack of government control, o

    I think there’s a missing hyperlink there? (I could Google it, but I’m experimenting for the day — I want to see what happens when I don’t use Google as the filter through which I view the world. First thing to note: it’s so inconvenient that I doubt I’ll hold out for the whole day.)

    Fixed it. But by popular demand, here it is again. (-:

    • #16
    • August 25, 2015 at 1:56 am
  17. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Titus Techera: Maybe Facebook is their biggest competitor.

    Yes, perhaps. Facebook, as we know, has no sense at all of it being inappropriate to try to shape political opinions, and does so very openly. (I cracked after a mere two hours of trying to abstain from searching for the information I needed on Google.)

    • #17
    • August 25, 2015 at 2:27 am
  18. Profile photo of Dan Hanson Thatcher

    The only current competitor to Google is Bing. Bing isn’t nearly as good, however.

    What would make an interesting research project would be to search for some politically charged terms in both search engines, and see how the results differ.

    • #18
    • August 25, 2015 at 2:38 am
  19. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Dan Hanson:The only current competitor to Google is Bing. Bing isn’t nearly as good, however.

    What would make an interesting research project would be to search for some politically charged terms in both search engines, and see how the results differ.

    Let’s try it. When I search “immigration” on Bing, I get this:

    This is what I get on Google:

    • #19
    • August 25, 2015 at 2:53 am
  20. Profile photo of Titus Techera Member

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Titus Techera: Maybe Facebook is their biggest competitor.

    Yes, perhaps. Facebook, as we know, has no sense at all of it being inappropriate to try to shape political opinions, and does so very openly. (I cracked after a mere two hours of trying to abstain from searching for the information I needed on Google.)

    Yeah. I believe conservatives will learn to regret this even more than they do. They are unwelcome in this world of tech & they do not seem too interested in dealing with it. It’s like the culture talk–except that tech might end up really being the culture, which what people call culture cannot be.

    There is a connection between the liberal bias of pol.sci–which should really be redubbed applied democracy or something like that–& the liberal bias of big companies that deal with the internet. Flattering people to get money turns into a kind of science. There is a strange thing about appealing to desire–it reinforces individualism while softening up, well, let’s call them individuals.

    If you suppose that to know people is to know something about their desires & interests, it really is possible that Facebook will know you better than you know yourself. Being ruled by Facebook & being who you are might end up meaning the same thing.

    • #20
    • August 25, 2015 at 2:53 am
  21. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Titus Techera: Yeah. I believe conservatives will learn to regret this even more than they do. They are unwelcome in this world of tech & they do not seem too interested in dealing with it.

    Are they? What’s your evidence for that? I don’t even have a stereotype of that being so, so your saying that surprises me.

    It’s like the culture talk–except that tech might end up really being the culture, which what people call culture cannot be. There is a connection between the liberal bias of pol.sci–which should really be redubbed applied democracy or something like that–& the liberal bias of big companies that deal with the internet.

    Well, definitely Facebook’s. I don’t know about Google.

    Flattering people to get money turns into a kind of science. There is a strange thing about appealing to desire–it reinforces individualism while softening up, well, let’s call them individuals. If you suppose that to know people is to know something about their desires & interests, it really is possible that Facebook will know you better than you know yourself. Being ruled by Facebook & being who you are might end up meaning the same thing.

    I’ve really stopped using Facebook almost completely because I find this so creepy.

    • #21
    • August 25, 2015 at 2:59 am
  22. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Mike Rapkoch: consumers can be manipulated, why not voters?

    This isn’t even a “maybe” question — they can be, of course. Lots of studies have shown that the order of the candidates’ names on the ballot affects voting behavior, for example. It’s easy to forget if you’re deeply interested in politics and elections that most people aren’t. Those people, not us, often determine who wins elections, and a huge amount of energy has been spent studying what makes them vote the way they do. If they were impossible to manipulate, no candidate would bother spending money on ads; he or she would just state his or her platform once, and count on the voters to make a rational decision about it. We know it doesn’t work that way, right?

    • #22
    • August 25, 2015 at 3:06 am
  23. Profile photo of Titus Techera Member

    I’m thinking about a few things here–one, that Silicon Valley types seem to be liberals almost without exception. Then another piece of evidence is this: The political & public campaigns of big corporations that deal with what is called social media–they tend to be progressive campaigns.

    • #23
    • August 25, 2015 at 3:28 am
  24. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Titus Techera:I’m thinking about a few things here–one, that Silicon Valley types seem to be liberals almost without exception.

    Well, they’re in California. But I suspect the connection is just that — geographic — rather than any other innate reason. Most people I know who work in information technology lean libertarian, and strongly so — you can talk to GGG about the reasons why this might be so.

    Then another piece of evidence is this: The political & public campaigns of big corporations that deal with what is called social media–they tend to be progressive campaigns.

    They do, and are presumably market-tested extensively; they’re responding — I assume — to what they’ve determined people like. Now, without looking closely at the way they’re doing the market testing, it’s hard to know how well-crafted their research is: It might be colored profoundly by their own bias. But generally, when a lot of money’s involved, the research is done quite carefully.

    • #24
    • August 25, 2015 at 4:18 am
  25. Profile photo of Nick Stuart Inactive

    Mike LaRoche:Yes, I think you’re right to be concerned. I suppose the answer is to have other tech entrepreneurs step up and try to beat Google. Their closest competitor, from what I can determine, is Microsoft’s Bing search engine. What other possible solutions to Google’s monopoly might there be?

    I use Bing. Mainly as push back against the Machine. I’m already in thrall to Google for the Android OS on my phone. Of course I’m in thrall to Microsoft for my Office Suite, and Adobe for my graphics/video/audio production tools.

    The Internet’s just like walking into a big library. The stuff the librarians want to push at you is prominently displayed. It’s up to you to go back into the stacks and ferret out the information you need.

    That’s why I use fountain pen. An atavistic impulse to resist being totally dominated by e-technology.

    • #25
    • August 25, 2015 at 4:55 am
  26. Profile photo of Miffed White Male Member

    Joseph Eagar:No American corporation would ever risk manipulating the public this way. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google has internal procedures to avoid the mere appearance that it influences elections.

    The political risk is simply too extreme, especially for corporations that act as de facto public utilities and are thus allowed to monopolize their markets. Google doesn’t just have to worry that American politicians will pass punitive laws or that foreign government will restrict Google’s access to their markets, it also has to worry about antitrust litigation, and not only in the U.S.

    By definition, the politicians in office are the ones who win elections under the protocols that Google uses. Why are they going to pass “punitive laws” against their own interests?

    • #26
    • August 25, 2015 at 4:57 am
  27. Profile photo of DrewInWisconsin Member

    I refuse to use G-mail or any Google apps. I flush my browser history daily and remove all cookies.

    Wouldn’t this create a sort of “blank slate” effect, such that I would be seeing Google as it presented itself to an unknown? In that case, what I see would be what Google wants the blank slate to see. What Google sets as its baseline for dissemination of information.

    I would still get location-specific results, but otherwise, . . .

    Or what am I missing?

    • #27
    • August 25, 2015 at 6:41 am
  28. Profile photo of Front Seat Cat Member

    Like peeling an onion, see what’s underneath……what charities does Google fund? Does this explain anything?

    http://fortune.com/2015/03/25/google-white-house/

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/google-makes-most-of-close-ties-to-white-house-1427242076

    I have in fact gotten the warning when sometimes going to Drudge, and it came up every time I got something in my email from Rick Santorum. I have also had “lock ups” even on Ricochet (not kidding). Claire…you might be a magnet!?

    I’ll tell you something else strange…we had a lightning strike on our modem…phone co. sends a new one…the computer keeps saying Internet signal limited. I never had an issue with old one..now says scanning lost and I can’t get on line…I have to reboot several times a day…5 calls to phone co and a tech visit did not solve. The tech said if it keeps happening, order different brand BUT…..he did say they have been getting same warnings everywhere, it’s increasing and they don’t know why – I’m in FL. It even happened on his own test equipment while he was at our house last week – on his own equipment!!! Very frustrating. It may not have anything to do with this story, but it adds to the frustration.

    • #28
    • August 25, 2015 at 6:53 am
  29. Profile photo of DrewInWisconsin Member

    So our candidates are going to be decided by Wall Street, and the final outcome decided by Google.

    Why do we bother with voting again?

    • #29
    • August 25, 2015 at 7:05 am
  30. Profile photo of Casey from Ohio Member

    Am I the only one who uses http://www.dogpile.com as a metasearch engine? I hate Google, primarily because their tentacles seem to reach further and further into our lives.

    • #30
    • August 25, 2015 at 7:40 am
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