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Fear the future

How Google results could rig an election

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Rick Santorum has a Santorum problem, in that the top Google results when you search his name are not about the man himself, but rather about a dirty sexual neologism. The problem was so worrisome that Santorum even asked Google to nix those gross results so voters seeking information on his 2012 presidential campaign would find it instead of icky sex stuff.

So was his concern legit? Perhaps so, according to a study based on India's election that found search results can indeed sway voters.

The study showed 2,000 undecided voters search results about the election, with the links rigged to spotlight or suppress favorable information about particular candidates. The study's big finding: Participants showed an average 12.5 percent shift toward the candidates who received deliberately-glowing search traffic.

Now, that result should come with a couple of big caveats. Though the algorithms Google and others use aren't public, there is no indication search engines in the real world game their results to influence elections. And further, voters have access to far more sources of information than just search engines, so the role search results play in influencing opinion are likely not as dramatic as the study's controlled scenario would indicate.