Can Biased Search Results Change People’s Opinions About Anything at All? A Close Replication of the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME)

43 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2023 Last revised: 3 Jan 2024

See all articles by Robert Epstein

Robert Epstein

American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology

Ji Li

American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT)

Date Written: October 10, 2023

Abstract

In previous experiments we have conducted on the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME), we have focused on the ability of biased search results to shift voting preferences. In three new experiments with a total of 1,137 US residents (mean age = 33.2), we sought to determine whether biased search rankings could shift people’s opinions on topics that do not involve candidates or elections. Each of the new experiments looked at a different topic, and participants were pre-screened to make sure they didn’t have strong opinions about these topics. The topics were: Is artificial intelligence useful or dangerous? Is fracking helpful or dangerous? And: Are people born gay or do they choose to be gay? All participants were first asked various demographic questions, then shown brief summaries of the “pro” and “anti” views on each topic, and then asked their opinions about each topic. Next, participants were allowed to conduct an online search using our mock search engine (Kadoodle) lasting up to 15 minutes. In each experiment, one-third of the participants saw biased search results favoring one perspective; one-third saw biased search results favoring the opposing perspective; and one-third (the control group) saw mixed search results. After completing their search, participants were again asked for their opinions about the topic. Our primary dependent variable was Manipulation Power (MP), the percentage increase in the number of participants favoring one viewpoint after having viewed search rankings favoring that viewpoint. The MPs in the three experiments were 25.0%, 30.9%, and 17.8%, respectively. Corresponding shifts were also found for how persuasive participants found each viewpoint to be and for how much they trusted each viewpoint. We conclude that search rankings favoring one viewpoint on a wide range of topics might be able to cause people who have not yet formulated a strong opinion on such topics to adopt the favored perspective. If our findings prove to be robust, we are exposing what might be considered an unforeseen consequence of search engines, namely that even without human interference, search algorithms will inevitably alter the thinking and behavior of billions of people worldwide on perhaps any topic for which they have not yet formed strong opinions.

Keywords: Search engines, search engine manipulation effect, SEME, online manipulation, manipulation power, VMP, MP

Suggested Citation

Epstein, Robert and Li, Ji, Can Biased Search Results Change People’s Opinions About Anything at All? A Close Replication of the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) (October 10, 2023). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4597654 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4597654

Robert Epstein (Contact Author)

American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology ( email )

1035 E Vista Way Ste 120
Vista, CA 92024
United States

HOME PAGE: http://aibrt.org

Ji Li

American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT) ( email )

United States

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