The Search Suggestion Effect (SSE): How Autocomplete Search Suggestions Can Be Used to Impact Opinions and Votes
69 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2023
Date Written: August 8, 2023
Can autocomplete search suggestions – the words or phrases generated by a search engine as people are typing a search term – influence opinions and votes? Previous research has shown that search results that favor one political candidate can have a rapid and substantial impact on the opinions and voting preferences of undecided voters. News reports in 2016 suggested that a leading search engine was suppressing negative search suggestions for one US Presidential candidate but not for her opponent. We conducted a progressive series of five randomized, controlled, counterbalanced, double-blind experiments to determine what effect differential suppression of this type might have on voters. We found that negative suggestions attract far more clicks than neutral or positive ones, consistent with extensive research on negativity bias, and that the differential suppression of negative search suggestions can turn a 50/50 split among undecided voters into more than a 90/10 split favoring the candidate for whom negative search suggestions were suppressed. We conclude that differentially suppressing negative search suggestions can have a dramatic impact on the opinions and voting preferences of undecided voters, potentially shifting a large number of votes without people knowing and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.
Keywords: search suggestion effect, SSE, autocomplete, online influence, search engine manipulation effect, negativity bias
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation