Monday, October 10, 2016

Can a Search Engine Sway Voters?

Image from Life Without Biases

It has been claimed that Google is biased in favor of Hillary Clinton. According to a report by psychologist Robert Epstein, this could sway as many as 3 million votes in the upcoming presidential election.

“How can a search engine be pro- or con- anything?” you ask. The problem, according to Matt Leiberman, is with the autocomplete suggestions that appear as you begin to input your search. Allegedly, Google is more likely to suggest positive rather than negative results about the Democratic Presidential Candidate – no matter how badly you want to find something disparaging about her.

Of course, Google denies the allegation. And according to this claim is false. But if you search for "Snopes bias," you will find numerous hits dismissing Snopes as liberal.

Besides Google, I used Yahoo! and Bing to search out information on this with similar results. But the two competing search engines return different results than Google when searching for dirt on HRC.

If you can’t trust a search engine to find unbiased information, where do you turn?

Having both a registered Republican and Democrat in our household, we receive the mailings from all the different candidates, taxpayer associations, and interest groups hoping to assist us in making informed decisions.

We watch the presidential (and vice presidential) debates from beginning to end. Afterwards, we channel surf through the variously biased news analyses to compare their takes on the issues. We surf the Internet for fact checking sources and discuss. Of course, fact-checking sources are also suspect. A popular fact checker,, winner of a Pulizer Prize in 2009 for their coverage of the 2008 election, is accused of being liberal by

This is a problem for me as an American citizen, but also as an information professional. Last week I carpooled from North Orange County to a professional association meeting in Los Angeles with a librarian colleague who is a Korean born naturalized American citizen. During the 90 minute commute (each way), the subject of the elections came up. We did not talk about Google but our discussion centered on how to get good information about local candidates. We both want to exercise our right and privilege to vote but despair of being properly informed. And we are information professionals!

Librarians value opposing opinions. In fact, the American Library Association has a Library Bill of Rights which says,
“Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” (Article II)
So the idea that Google might be withholding relevant information with biased results was alarming. Google is a brilliant information-seeking tool. But we must remember that, as is the case with standard authoritative reference works such as encyclopedias and dictionaries, Google is man-made and therefore, not infallible.

My husband says he applies the "hermeneutic of suspicion" to his own psyche, assuming that, although he may not be aware of it, he is biased or has an ulterior motive to believe what he already agrees with. It is my professional opinion that we must endeavor to suspect bias in every source, including Google and ourselves.

As far as the election goes, I trust in the system of checks and balances and hope that enough of my fellow Americans do too.

Related post: Thinking Critically About the Election, by Tyler Watson


Robin Hartman is Director of Library Services at Hope International University. She is curious about how the organization and communication of information shapes society and is committed to equipping students to impact the world for Christ.

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