Political influence is a funny thing because it comes in a variety of forms and originates from a variety of sources. Fortune 500 companies inherently possess the ability to have an astounding amount of political influence on the world’s population because of the substantial amount of wealth that these companies control. In 2015, Google was ranked #40 on the Fortune 500 list, which indicates that the company’s wealth could provide a large amount of political influence. However, Google’s greatest potential to possess political influence does not come from its position on the Fortune 500 list’s pecking order, but rather from its control of the world’s most-used search engine.
According to Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, by manipulating its search results, Google could decide the 2016 presidential election.
Based on experiments conducted with Ronald E. Robertson, Robert Epstein concluded that Google has far more power to control elections than any company in history. Google’s search algorithm can shift the voting preference of undecided voters by twenty percent or more without the voters knowing that they are being manipulated.
Many elections are won by small margins. Robert Epstein’s research suggests that upwards of twenty-five percent of national elections worldwide could be decided by Google. The 2012 presidential election was won by a margin of only 3.9 percent, a number well within Google’s control.
A large corporation tampering with an election is not unprecedented in the United States. In the late 1800s, Western Union had a monopoly on communications in America, and just before the 1876 presidential election, the company did its best to assure that Rutherford B. Hayes was elected the 19th president of the United States. The company did its best to assure that only positive stories were released about Hayes and it shared all the telegrams sent by his opponent’s campaign staff with Hayes’ staff. Hayes won the election by one electoral vote.
It is highly unlikely that Google would risk the public outrage and corporate punishment that would follow an election tampering similar to the 1876 election. However, Google could shape the election in 2016 without the knowledge of Google executives. The employees who constantly adjust the search algorithms manipulate people everyday and the results are untraceable. Google’s search algorithms could potentially push one candidate to the top of the rankings because of the organic search activity of its users.
The legal difficulty that is presented by Google’s potential power is the ability to monitor the influence that the company possesses. Election laws are in place to protect against tampering, but there are not any laws in place for activity that cannot be monitored. The more evolved technology becomes, the greater the role it will play in political elections. It will be up to lawmakers to determine the best method to monitor such influence in order to maintain a fair and democratic election process in the United States.