The Washington Post explores a provocative question about Google in its Outlook section tomorrow: Do we need laws in place to safeguard against the company deliberately manipulating elections? It may sound far-fetched on the surface, but the story follows the experiments of psychologist Robert Epstein, who showed that it's relatively easy to sway potential voters by manipulating search results. Epstein, though, isn't talking about Google bombs, in which outsiders try to rig results. What if the folks inside Google—if not the current leaders, but the next generation 20 years from now—subtly changed their algorithms to give an edge to a favorite candidate?
It would be nearly impossible to detect, and the very possibility should have us worried, argues Epstein. Others agree. "Elections are won among low-information voters," says Eli Pariser, former president of MoveOn.org. "The ability to raise a negative story about a candidate to a voter ... could be quite powerful." Epstein will formally present his findings this spring at a psychology forum, but Google disputes the premise. "Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning," it says. "It would undermine people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course." (Click for the full story, which notes that Epstein's research was prompted by a public beef he had with the company.)