Tech Tuesday: When Art Imitates Life – Silicon Valley and Search Engine Manipulation

Man wearing a brain-control helmet, human brain-related experiments


A few nights ago HBO’s Silicon Valley, an irreverent take on technology innovators, aired “Two in the Box” which follows the trials and tribulations of our software engineers who now have a backer, a backer who is more interested in the payoff than introducing world-changing breakthroughs. In this episode, there is a subplot following a problem at Hooli (a spoof of Google). Due to bad press, founder Gavin Belson finds his name and checkered past the leading search results from the Hooli search engine. He then suggests to his developers that the search results needed to change. Belson never tells them to do this, but just suggests that something needs to be done about this.

Now let’s be clear—this is crass, over-the-top satire from HBO who also poke the same kind of ridicule at politics with shows like VEEP and The Brink. Silicon Valley is merely poking fun at our technology-fascinated society and giving us a good laugh on a Sunday night, right?

   It might surprise you just how close to the mark this show struck.

Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, penned a rather dark, foreboding essay discussing a new form of mind control found in Google’s search results. Since 2013, Epstein and his colleagues conducted a number of experiments in the U.S. to determine if search results can, in fact, affect people’s political opinions. Epstein points out in his essay that about 50% of web traffic access only the top two items on the first page. More than 90% of traffic rely on the top ten results for their query’s answer. Of course, the unsettling part of this study is that amidst other search engines like Yahoo! and Bing, Internet users are reliant on one site. The one site that dominates the search business: Google.

undefinedIn his initial experiment where Epstein offered biased and bogus results contrary to test subjects’ opinions, he found that test subjects changed their opinion 48% of the time, even though the search results returned to them were skewed in some fashion. Even more alarming, 75% of the subjects in the study remained completely unaware they were viewing biased search rankings. He conducted several more experiments, including one that involved than 2,000 people from all fifty states, and the end results showed shifted voter preferences across the demographics by 37% in the opposite direction. One demographic showed a significant 80% change in opinion after search results had been influenced by researchers.

Skeptical over these incredible numbers, Epstein repeated this exercise during a real election. He went to India during their election for their Prime Minister, just before voting began. His study recruited 2150 people from 27 of India’s 35 states and territories to participate in the experiment, the prerequisites being you had to be a registered voter, had not yet voted in the election, and remained undecided about who you would vote for. On average, the researchers were able to shift the proportion of people favoring any given candidate by more than 20%, with one demographic manipulated by search results to vote for their least favorable candidate by more than 60%.

Once again, as in the United States, 99.5% of the participants showed no awareness that they were viewing biased search rankings.

Silicon Valley can be easily dismissed as satire, but studies like Epstein’s show that Mike Judge may be actually warning us about the reliance we have on those who make things more convenient. Research used to take hours at a library, flipping through card catalogs and checking out multiple references, most of which were products of a vetting process. Now, anyone with a blog and the right keywords can land a spot in the Top Ten of a Google search; and when it comes to research, many users—as the studies are showing—cannot be bothered with the extra effort. It’s just too much work.

That sort of laziness reminds me of another satire from Mike Judge. Idiocracy.

Remember, technology should make things easier. Not make us lazier, or more trusting. Question resources and dig deep. As Sir Arthur Conon Doyle so eloquently put it, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Wise words when engaged in the search for answers online.



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.


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