Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) has an enormous amount of power through its ability to manipulate search rankings.

The company can make or break a brand or website by making minor tweaks to its algorithms. There's an entire science devoted to interpreting every move Google makes because even subtle changes can make a huge difference.

Google has always maintained that the goal of its endless tinkering is delivering the best search results possible. That seems to be true and the search giant famously has a "you can make money without doing evil," policy, but just because it currently has good intentions does not mean it always will.

The company's success and its ability to control where people go on the Internet put it into a place where it could impact the next president of the United States. There's no reason to believe Google intends to rig the coming election, but it has that power according to a Politico essay written by Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

How could Google do this?
Epstein wrote that Google not only has the power to swing the results in the election, but that it can do so in a way only he and "a few other obscure researchers would know." He explained his findings in the piece.

Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google,, has amassed far more power to control elections — indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs — than any company in history has ever had. Google's search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20%  or more — up to 80%  in some demographic groups — with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson.

Google can't move every voter, but Epstein explained that you only need to cause a small shift to swing the results. He pointed put that "in the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6%, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9% — well within Google's control."
 
Essentially it comes down to Google's ability to decide which results pop up when people enter a search term. What pops up is based on a complicated (and very secret formula). Imagine if you Google "Donald Trump immigration."
 
Given the query, the search giant would be justified in serving up his speeches, news clips from the campaign trail, articles supporting/attacking his stances. Depending on how the algorithm is calibrated searchers could see any or all of the above and it's easy to see how pointing people in a certain direction could lead people to think one thing over another.
 
Screen Shot

Google could change opinions by changing what people see when they search "Donald Trump immigration. Source: Google search results

It's not that they will, but they can
Though Epstein does not suggest that Google will intentionally influence election results he points out the company could in a way the government is not setup to protect against.

Our new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters. In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63%  after just one search session. The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger.

Google, of course, denies that any of its algorithm work is designed to produce this kind of result.
 
The company's official comment on SEME research is always the same: "Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google's approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people's trust in our results and company if we were to change course."

That's almost certainly true, but it's still disconcerting that one company has the ability to change the course of politics (and history) not just in the U.S. but globally.

We need to study this
The most frightening aspect of Epstein's research is not the idea that Google can do this it's how little the people who protect the sanctity of elections would understand what would happen. Voter fraud in the traditional sense can be combated on a broad level, but manipulating an election by subtly tweaking search results would be hard to detect and perhaps impossible to prove.

Of course, Google is not the only company which could impact elections. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has issued an electronic "I voted" button in elections around the world "with data scientists later finding that tiny social nudge can provide positive peer pressure driving Facebook users to the polls," Time reported.

Getting people to vote is admirable, but it's also a form of manipulation and shows that the line between legal behavior from big-tech and rigging the vote may not be quite so clear.

Epstein has identified a potential future problem. Google, and maybe other Internet powers, can shift opinions in subtle ways that are unprecedented in history. This is tricky to combat but it's something officials should be aware of and something we as a nation should be prepared to prevent.

 

Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook. He has Googled himself. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Facebook, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.