How a Daily Regimen of Operant Conditioning Might Explain the Power of the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME)
84 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2023
Date Written: August 25, 2023
Epstein and Robertson (2015) showed in five experiments with 4,556 participants in two countries that search rankings favoring one political candidate can rapidly produce dramatic shifts in the opinions and voting preferences of undecided voters. They labeled this new form of influence the “search engine manipulation effect” (SEME) and demonstrated that these shifts can occur without people’s awareness. SEME is a list effect that is substantially more powerful than other list effects that have been studied over the last century. We hypothesize that this is so because, unlike other list effects, SEME is supported by a daily regimen of operant conditioning – a regimen that people are entirely unaware of. Specifically, when people conduct searches for simple facts, the correct answer invariably turns up in the first search position. This experience teaches people to attend to and click on high-ranking search results. As a result, when people are undecided on some issue, they tend to formulate their opinions based on web pages linked to high-ranking search results. We tested this hypothesis in a controlled experiment with 551 U.S. voters, half assigned to a High-Trust group and half to a Low-Trust group. In the former, participants first conducted routine searches in which the correct answer always appeared in the first search result. In the Low-Trust group, the correct answer could appear in any search position other than the first two. A difference emerged between the groups when they were subsequently asked to search for information on political candidates. Consistent with our hypothesis, the increase in voting preferences for the favored candidate in the High-Trust group was significantly larger (34.6%) than the corresponding increase in the Low-Trust group (17.1%, p = 0.001).
Keywords: search engines, Search Engine Manipulation Effect, SEME, search engine result position, online manipulation, operant conditioning of online search behavior
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation