Google Can Sway Close Elections

Google's unbound, private monopoly on search and advertising give it unparalleled influence over close elections.

I am a volunteer poll worker in my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia, and a bona fide "election nerd". By that I mean I care more about how an election is conducted than I do about who gets elected. To me, the process is what matters. As long as the process was fair and open, then I am happy with the result.

So I absolutely understand it when people get riled up about voting irregularities and failures to follow election procedure. They should! But thankfully, voting procedure is a matter of public law and public record. If you feel you've been harmed by an official or a policy, you can petition a court for redress.

But no one can compel Google to reveal its search algorithms. Those algorithms are their private property. Google isn't legally obligated to be fair or open. Google doesn't have to listen to your complaints. If Google decides to demote the search results of your campaign and promote those of your opponent, there is no legal redress for the harm this may have caused you. Google is completely free to shape the information it feeds us in any way it wants to.

Since Google is arguably the very backbone of Internet content management and advertising, it should be obvious that Google can easily sway the results of a close election. It should also be obvious that it has enormous financial incentive to do so. My sense is that the influence of Google on a close election is likely an entire order of magnitude greater than your typical voting irregularity. You may worry about Voter ID, but I'm guessing the silent manipulation of voters' search results is ten times more influential.

If you're going to complain about undue election interference, you've just got to start with the elephant in the room. I don't like using pretentious words like "existential", but in this case it really is the only word that will do. Google's unbound, private monopoly on search and advertising is an existential threat to democratic elections.

But what about the other online players?

What about social media? Amazon web services? Online payment providers? Banks? Aren't they a threat, too?

Yes, but they are not nearly as dangerous as Google both because Google is just so much larger of a monopoly, but also because its influence is hidden from people's view. When Facebook censors a point of view, you can see it happening and get confirmation from your network of friends. If a national government makes it a crime to donate to a political cause through online giving platform, you can see that happening in public.

But what Google does, you do not see. By controlling both advertising and content indexing, they literally shape the landscape of every piece of content you see or hear: the order of articles that appear on your favorite web sites, which images you see in your social media apps, whose opinions are sorted to the top of your feeds – all of these are driven in response to popularity rankings coming from Google. In fact, the very existence of whole businesses in large part depend on Google-enabled information flows.

When it comes to the ability to sway an election result, Google is in a position of unparalleled influence.

So what can be done?

Frankly, I'm not sure that much of anything formal can be done. Google search and advertising is a monopoly. Monopolies are supposed to be illegal. But could any campaign to elect people to bring Google to heel ever become popular? With Google's finger on the Internet, and with so much money at stake, they could easily find more than enough politicians to suppress any such effort.

Probably the best thing is to train ourselves to remain deeply skeptical about the information we are being fed online. Any company that used to have a slogan of "Don't Be Evil" obviously understands that it could be evil if it wanted to. And the fact that this is no longer their slogan should tell you all you really need to know about what's top-of-mind at Google corporate these days.

From an election point of view, the best mitigation is to win elections by a comfortable margin. By "comfortable", I mean anything larger than the margin for recounting. In Virginia, the margin for a recount is 1%. If the difference between 1st and 2nd place is greater than that, it doesn't matter how much time or money someone spent on trying to sway the outcome.

Close elections are the devil's playground.

To win by a comfortable margin, you have to win your base plus most of the center. Most voters in the US have no declared party allegiance. We're at the lowest level of party affiliation since our founding. That's probably a good sign, I think. Run on broad issues that appeal across partisan lines, and even Google's hidden influence will not be able to move the needle far enough.

Image credit: "Google ;)" by GuillermoJM is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.


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