Not even some of the great conspiracy theorists of past generations could have predicted the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) or even imagined it – but it’s here, it’s real, and Google could use it to flip elections.

Two scientists state that the SEME is the culmination of a two-decade long struggle between search engines, which claim to provide the most “meaningful” Internet search results for users, and web masters, competing for the top positions of those search results. In the old days, web designers could “game” the system by using meta-tags and employing key words and phrases. Later, “article marketing” and back-link generation strategies were widely used. However, search engine companies got wise to these tactics and began changing the rules on how websites were ranked. The entire process gave rise to an entirely new industry, known as “Search Engine Optimization” (SEO).

Two things have happened in recent years: (1) Google has become the dominant search engine in the US. The very word “Google” is now a synonym for “internet search.” (2) Google has developed very sophisticated, constantly changing, and highly secretive “algorithms.” According to Google, the purpose of these “algorithms” is to fine-tune search results and provide the “most meaningful” information to Web users. But according to a study by behavioral scientists Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson, Google’s algorithms are being used constantly to manipulate people’s opinions on everything from underwear and cute animal pictures to film and popular music – and even world events. They’re also manipulating voting patterns.

Epstein and Robertson conducted five experiments in the US and India, demonstrating that internet search results can and do affect election outcomes – particularly in very tight races. Some of the research is based on data going back 100 years, showing that the position of a name or item in a list can have a tremendous influence on how people perceive it, how well they remember it and how it is otherwise evaluated. It is why performers on a bill try to get on stage first or last – because those are the acts that audiences remember. Those in the middle – not so much.

The frightening aspect of the Epstein-Robertson study is that it shows how the SEME puts list positioning on virtual steroids. By determining search result rankings, Google wields extraordinary and dangerous power to determine the outcome of elections – even more so than the corporate media and opinion polls. In their conclusions, Epstein and Robertson write:

Given that search engine companies are currently unregulated, our results could be viewed as a cause for concern, suggesting that such companies could affect – and  perhaps are already affecting—the outcomes of close elections worldwide. Restricting search ranking manipulations to voters who have been identified as undecided while also donating money to favored candidates would be an especially subtle, effective, and efficient way of wielding influence.

The authors acknowledge there is no definitive proof that influencing election outcomes is on Google’s agenda. However, they note the following interesting facts from the recent election in India:

Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google decided the winner of the Indian election.  Google’s own daily data on election-related search activity (subsequently removed from the Internet, but not before my colleagues and I downloaded the pages) showed that Narendra Modi, the ultimate winner, outscored his rivals in search activity by more than 25 percent for sixty-one consecutive days before the final votes were cast. That high volume of search activity could easily have been generated by higher search rankings for Modi.

The authors also note that if Google were to try to influence this upcoming Presidential election with SEO manipulation, Google likely would do it for Hillary:

Given Google’s strong ties to Democrats, there is reason to suspect that if Google or its employees intervene to favor their candidates, it will be to adjust the search algorithm to favor Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to Obama but only $37,000 to Romney. At least six top tech officials in the Obama administration, including Megan Smith, the country’s chief technology officer, are former Google employees. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, since Obama took office, Google representatives have visited the White House ten times as frequently as representatives from comparable companies—once a week, on average.

Hillary Clinton clearly has Google’s support and is well aware of Google’s value in elections. In April of this year, she hired a top Google executive, Stephanie Hannon, to serve as her chief technology officer. I don’t have any reason to suspect Hannon would use her old connections to aid her candidate, but the fact that she—or any other individual with sufficient clout at Google—has the power to decide elections threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our electoral system, particularly in close elections.

To read more on this topic, click How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election Google has the ability to drive millions of votes to a candidate with no one the wiser.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.