Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. All important global leaders are lizard people. 9/11 was a government set up to allow the military to gain control of the Middle East. The Earth is flat, or maybe it’s round, but hollow. There are hundreds of conspiracy theories out there, ranging from the actually scary (the government created the AIDS virus) to the downright silly (Furbies were invented to control the minds of our children). Whatever you do believe, you have to admit that conspiracy theories are interesting. Maybe this is only because I take an absurd joy in watching hours of video of people explaining how the pyramids were built by aliens, but I can’t be the only one, right?
Especially because some theories end up being true. The NSA has actually been listening to everything you say. The CIA actually did spend considerable money and effort into researching mind control. Most dastardly of all, Froot Loops have all been the same flavor this whole time!
I don’t mean to imply that any from the first group are true or even that they have any evidence, I simply wish to illustrate that sometimes tinfoil hats can be practical, as well as stylish. For a very important example, take advertising. It can be subtle, but it works a lot better than secretly dosing people with LSD. Ads are all around us and effect us way more than we think they do. Even if you know how you are being manipulated, surprise! It still works! Advertising can be insidious, but we generally still know when we’re looking at it. When you see an ad for “The Gun Show” on I-15, you know that they want you to come look at rifles.
When your best friend’s hippy roommate and your racist uncle both Google Jill Stein, you would expect the same information, right? Google wouldn’t lead you astray, right? Probably not on purpose, but it might. You see, Google changes what results you see, depending on the websites you visit. They say the search results are tailored to you, and they are.
It’s a form of targeted advertising. It’s like when your roommate spends a lot of time on MyFitnessPal and looking up healthy recipes, so Google sends him ads about that new low-fat/low-sugar ice cream which he buys the next day. (Shout out to you, Peter.) Google knows you just bought the annotated Atlas Shrugged, so Gary Johnson takes up most of your search results when you Google anything about the elections. This is called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect, and it can have real consequences.
In a study involving Americans who know nothing about global politics, a team discovered that simply changing the order of news items in a made up search engine involving the two key players in the Australian election could change how people say they would vote by up to 80%. 80%! A similar study was conducted during a real Indian election. When undecided but knowledgeable participants were fed manipulated search results, the number of vote changers jumped down to 12.5%. Having a base knowledge of the issues and candidates greatly reduces the number who would change their vote. Still, if enough undecided voters see these kinds of targeted search results, it could absolutely sway a close election.
Could Google be manipulating their algorithm to influence the election? Maybe. Are they? Probably not. Would we know if they were? Nope. Happy Halloween, everyone!