SEME is one of the largest behavioural effects ever discovered by researchers. Studies have shown that consumer preferences can be altered by manipulating search results returned by search engine including voting preferences (Its works by consistently favouring one point of view, product or person over another and promoting them to the top of the search engine results). Research indicates that such manipulations could shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more and up to 80 percent in some demographics. It's even been suggested that outcome of 25% of elections around the world could have been decided by SEME in recent years.
Before people think I've got a tinfoil hat and gone all consistory theory, no one is suggesting that this has been done deliberately. Although the potential clearly exists and would be extremely difficult to detect. After all how many people know how Googles search algorithm actually works for instance? The European Union has taken anti-trust proceedings against Google for favouring its services over others in its search rankings, something its executives have privately advocated. While Google admits it alters it search algorithm up to 600 times a year, but does not disclose the substance off these changes.
But its not just search engines take Facebook's "I'm Voting" or "I'm a Voter" tool for instance that's been used to encourage people to vote. One could argue this is a begin tool to promote civic engagement. But what would happen if it was only pushed on the news feeds of people whose posts had indicated they would be voting for a particular party, candidate, or cause? And how would we know if that happened?
Facebook is known to have conducted experiments on now it can manipulate newsfeeds to change behaviour. One experiment in 2012 increased the amount of hard news stories at the top of the feeds of 1.9 million users. According to one Facebook data scientist, that change—which users were not alerted to—measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout. But what if all those 1.9 million people had been Republicans or Democrat's for instance?
In 2010, Facebook put different forms of the "I'm Voting" button on the pages of about 60 million of its American users. Two groups of 600,000 users were left out to serve as a control group. Two years later, a team of academics and Facebook data scientists published their findings in Nature magazine under the title "A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,". The conclusion was that Facebook persuaded at least 340,000 people to vote, a 0.6% increase in turnout from a single Facebook message.
All this raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. Should a handful of global corporations have the power to conduct these sort of experiments? What are the acceptable limits for manipulating human behaviour for commercial and political gain? And crucially how can we monitor and regulate such activities?
And in case this all still sounds like I've gone and joined the tin-foil hat brigade try reading this 'How to Hack an Election'. The story of Andrés Sepúlveda who spent eight years rigging elections throughout Latin America, now serving 10 years in prison for charges related to hacking during Colombia’s 2014 presidential election.
Makes you think doesn't it?