Will Google's tool sway the presidential election?

Google will roll out a tool Monday to provide voter registration information and detailed coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. But critics are wary of the search giant involving itself in electoral politics.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
Voters in the Balsams Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, January 2012. A Google tool that will be launched Monday will provide voter registration information and detailed coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

Google wants Americans to be more involved in the 2016 election. And it’s optimizing its search engine to make sure they are.

The Alphabet Inc. subsidiary will provide users with information about the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, including a live stream of the events and “relevant” social media posts, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to vote in their state, Jacob Schonberg, Google Product Manager, announced Friday on the search engine’s official blog.

Though this new tool is meant to encourage Americans to take a more active part in the presidential election, critics are leery of the search engine giant, as well as other Silicon Valley powerhouses, involving themselves in the election at all.

Google says its new tool aims to “simplify the voter registration process to make it easier for you to have your voice heard,” writes Mr. Schonberg. Starting Monday, voter registration information – including a state-by-state guide of how to register, voting requirements, and deadlines – will be displayed under the search tab if a user searches for “register to vote” or similar queries. The results will be exclusive to the state where the user performs the search if the device shares its location with Google, or if the user manually selects a state.  

Beginning at the Republican National Convention that starts Monday, a search for the conventions will prompt a summary of the events, nominees, and a lineup of speakers, as well as a livestream video from YouTube. Google will also display “relevant” social media posts “so you can stay up-to-date with both the political parties and the public,” writes Schonberg.

More than a third of the population (about 35 percent) doesn’t register to vote in general elections, and even more of the population doesn’t vote (44.5 percent), according to the US Census Bureau.

Google unveiled a similar tool during the 2014 elections, which provided users with voter registration information, election reminders, and real-time analysis, including candidate debates and trending political videos. It’s also reminiscent of the Rock the Vote campaign, started in 1990, to encourage 18-to-24 year olds to register by partnering with MTV and having celebrity spokespeople. 

Some have been distrustful of Google’s involvement in the elections. In an op-ed Politico published in August, two psychologists wrote Google engineers, in theory, could sway elections by manipulating search results. Robert Epstein, a research psychologist who has clashed with Google before, said he and his colleague, Ronald Robertson, found Google’s search algorithm could shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by at least 20 percent. This would be accomplished, wrote Dr. Epstein, if Google employees prioritized certain search results and buried others.  

The informational part of the tool about voter registration wouldn’t play into Epstein and Dr. Robertson’s fears. But, its coverage of the parties’ national conventions could, especially Google’s choice of social media posts.

Other researchers, however, questioned Epstein and Robertson’s theory. Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung, both of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, wrote on The Daily Beast in September that while the consistency of Epstein and Robertson’s results were sound, “to take an artificially huge manipulation in isolated laboratory conditions and then claim that real results ‘would undoubtedly be larger’ – well, this may be good marketing, but it’s poor science.”

Google is not the only technology powerhouse that will provide coverage of the conventions, or that has prompted controversy about its involvement in the election.  Facebook – which dealt with the controversy over how it chose trending news stores – will have its Facebook Live feature used by C-SPAN and PBS Newshour to stream the conventions, according to USA Today.

Facebook will also sponsor the Republican and Democratic conventions.

“Our presences in both Cleveland and Philadelphia will allow Facebook to help facilitate and open dialogue among voters, candidates, and elected officials during the conventions,” Katie Harbath, director of Facebook’s global politics and government outreach team, said in a statement, according to USA Today.

But a member of Facebook’s leadership team will be directly involved in promoting a particular candidate. Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member, was confirmed to speak at the Republican National Convention in support of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. 

In spite of critics' concerns about Google, it has carved out a history of providing voters with more information during the presidential elections. This year’s elections were the first Google released real-time results of trending search queries, providing pollsters and the public with election predictions.

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