Search Result Influence: Reaching voters seeking answers


Originally published in Inside the Influence Industry's Personal Data: Political Persuasion - How it works by Tactical Tech's Data & Politics team.

What is search result influence?

Searching online is one of the key ways that we discover, learn and verify information, and for that reason, the ability to influence search results is a key tool for political campaigns looking to influence or target you before and during referendums, elections and other political debates. From placing ads within your search results to seeking to influence the results themselves, political campaigns consider search to be a priority in their advertising budgets.

Google Search and YouTube are the main sources of information online for many users and are heavily relied upon for way-finding, learning and fact-checking. Google Search is the most widely used search engine in the world, dominating over 90% of the search market on desktop computers. Google also owns YouTube, which is quickly becoming the second most popular search tool in the world, as increasing numbers of people use it not only for watching videos but also for searching for information and knowledge online.

Google Search and YouTube's ability to serve you ads and sponsored content that are related to what you are searching for makes them particularly powerful methods for campaigns and politicians who want to get their messages across more efficiently and target them more precisely. The apparent neutrality of Google Search in particular - with users seeing it as mainly a reference and discovery tool - makes it extremely attractive to political campaigners who want to spread information.

How does it work?

When you search for something in a search engine, you get two kinds of search results: 'organic' search results are controlled by the algorithm of the search engine, while 'paid' search results are normally placed through paid advertisements. These organic and paid search results appear together, with a small 'ad' sign to indicate which ones have been paid for.

Despite their apparent neutrality, search results can influence what people see and what they believe, particularly when it comes to political views. A study published in 2015 attempted to assess the impact of search rankings on undecided voters - testing what the authors call the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME). Their research concluded that 'Google's search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more - up to 80 percent in some demographic groups - with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated'.

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Screenshot from Google’s Political Advertising Transparency Report, showing highest paid ads between 31 May 2018 and 5 March 2019. The ad previews also show impressions and ad spend.
_Source: ‘Google Political Advertising Transparency Report’, accessed 14 March 2019._

Political campaigns can invest in data-driven techniques to influence two kinds of search results:

Organic search results: Organic search results, or 'natural' search results, are served based on a search engine's algorithms. While organic search results cannot be influenced by paid ads, both advertisers and political campaigns alike often try to influence the results of organic searches - what is usually referred to as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) - with varying degrees of success. SEO involves a series of measures to raise a site in search rankings based on assumptions about the logic of the search engine's algorithm. SEO is common practice amongst most website developers, including political sites, and there are a wide range of services available to help parties maximise results. What are known as Black Hat Search Engine Optimisation methods, on the other hand, are essentially underhanded techniques outside the guidelines of search engines, which can be taken by those willing to risk being blocked by the search engine company. Political campaigns have been known to use both of these techniques, though standard SEO techniques are more commonplace.

Paid search results: In contrast to organic search results, paid search results---such as Google Ads (formerly known as AdWords) - are personalised results based on the data that the platform collects about you, including your past search history, recent locations you've visited, and in the case of Google Search, your activities within other Google products, for example YouTube videos you've watched.

Political campaigns buy Google Ads through an auction-based system, placing bids that respond to words you use in your search. These are then displayed and ranked based on how much the advertiser is willing to pay and an estimate of how relevant the ad is to the search. These ads can just show key terms or display additional images and graphics or AdWord extensions, like a phone number. Additionally, Responsive Search Ads allow advertisers to make ads that have multiple variables - such as different headings and captions - and generate many different versions depending on what works.

The array of services offered by Google facilitates not only political ads that respond to what you are searching for, but also a variety of strategies used by political parties to get into your search line-of-sight to deliver a particular message. As such, paid search results served to you based on your personal data can be utilised for a variety of things---not just to drive you to click or vote a certain way, but also to discredit the opposition or spread counter-information on a topical issue that may be trending in the news. In the frenzy of an election period, this can lead to a cumulative effect, with political campaigns buying ads to counter each others' claims. For example, on political campaign strategist gives advice online about how to counter ads that discredit your political campaign as follows: 'savvy voters will use the web to try and fact check ads on their own, by buying terms relevant to those negative ads, you can combat their message and refer voters to a page on your website that specifically addresses the ads' claims. With these ads, you can quickly disseminate time sensitive information and often set the record straight'.

There has been much speculation about whether paid search-based political ads can influence elections. However, since May 2018, Google has made significant changes to how they handle political advertisements, in conjunction with political events and elections in several countries:

↘ In the period before the Irish abortion referendum in May 2018, Google decided to ban all advertising related to the referendum on its platform.

↘ Political ads on Google Search in the US1 are now disclosed by the company in their Transparency Report so that interested parties can see an archive of ads purchased since 31 May 2018 and get additional information, such as how many people have seen an ad and how much was spent on them.

↘ The platform has put some restrictions on political ads in place, such as a requirement that political ads should carry information about who paid for them, as well as new advertiser verification requirements in connection to some elections periods, such as in India and in the EU in 2019.

↘ In March 2019, Google announced they would ban political ads on their platform in the run-up to the Canadian federal elections.

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Screenshot from Google’s Political Advertising Transparency Report, showing the number of ads purchased and amount spent by Trump Make America Great Again Committee, Trumps reelection campaign and political financing instrument run by Brad Parscale, between 31 May 2018 and 6 March 2019.
Source: ‘Political Advertising on Google – TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN COMMITTEE’, accessed 13 March 2019.

Some examples

In Kenya: In research commissioned by Tactical Tech about data-driven campaigning in Kenya, the author reports that in the run-up to the 2017 campaign between Uhuru Kenyatta, the then-president and leader of the Jubilee party, and Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA), Kenyans reportedly saw ads on Google's Search page that cast the opposition candidate Raila Odinga in a negative light. The adverts returned results such as '12 reasons never to trust NASA' when visitors searched the word 'scandal', and screenshots were extensively shared on private messaging apps that showed that when the search term 'Unga' (maize flour) was used, the first result promoted a news-type article claiming that Kenyatta had pushed down the prices, which at the time was a hotly debated issue'. This shows how influencing search results was one method both parties used to disseminate negative information about the opposition.

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Mobile phone screenshots obtained from research with Kenyan country partner in the run-up to the 2017 Kenyan general election showing advertising in Google search results that discredited Raila Odinga (the opposition) and praised Uhuru Kenyatta (the then president).
Source: Tactical Tech, 2018.

How do I know if it's affecting me?

Since Google has changed its policies on the declaration of political advertisements, you should be able to find a notification on an ad to check who paid for it, depending on which country you are in. However, you will not be able to find out why you are receiving that ad or based on what data or variables.

You can use Google's political ad library to check political ads that you may have seen, filtered by a specific date range, the amount spent on the ad's campaign, and media type (image, video, text). However, at the time of writing, this feature only functions in the US. Search results can also be sorted by 'most recently launched', 'spend---high to low' or 'views---high to low'. Nevertheless, political ad data that doesn't mention a specific candidate or elected federal office holder is not available on the platform as of March 2019.

Lastly, you can look at some of your account profile details that are used for both Google and YouTube searches by looking at your account information and settings.

Considerations

↘ The affordability and straightforward interface of paid search results, such as Google Ads, means that political campaigns without large budgets can join debates and access audiences that may otherwise be inaccessible to them. As one campaign consultant states on their website: 'One of the really nice parts of Google Ads is that they're relatively inexpensive and can get a campaign good coverage for a tiny percentage of their media budget'.

↘ Affordable search-based advertising can serve to equalise the playing field for parties who do not have the money to spend on billboard or television advertising and targeting and can facilitate highly focused campaigns.

↘ On the flip side, political parties with large advertising budgets can significantly drown out smaller parties and dominate the political narrative.

↘ It is well documented that large political parties with significant budgets have received support from Google staff services, specifically Google Search. An academic study by Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor documented the work of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Google's sales teams during the 2016 US presidential cycle. This research was extended by a report from the Campaign for Accountability, which found: 'Google employees work inside political campaigns where they are sometimes indistinguishable from campaign hands. These embeds, offered to every presidential campaign in 2016, helped politicians target voters, craft their messages, design their ads, and even respond to opponents during and after political debates'.

↘ Google's Transparency Report is an important step forward and an invaluable resource, but it does not provide the context of where, why and when these political ads were inserted, which is the most important aspect of the search engine.

In addition, as digital ads become more algorithmic, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of variations being generated and served based on response, the archive will hold less value and produce fewer insights.

↘ The fact that Google dominates the search market through Google Search and YouTube means that a large amount of political faith is being entrusted to one company, which on the issue of digital political advertising is currently largely self-regulated.

↘ There has been widespread debate about the extent to which Google's algorithms themselves 'personalise' search results based on data they use to customise results so that they are more relevant, such as location, previous search requests or device type, and in turn how much this could skew the results of a search, result in 'filter bubbles', or ultimately impact the political landscape. In several tweets in August 2018, Donald Trump accused Google Search of being biased against conservative media, claiming that Google Search results for 'Trump News' were 'rigged' against him because they showed only coverage from outlets like CNN and not conservative publications. Despite the fact that Trump's accusations were not backed by any evidence, Google invited journalists into their meeting to find out how the search engine actually works.

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Tweets from Donald Trump in August 2018, claiming that Google Search results are biased..
Source: ‘Twitter’, 28 August 2018.

↘ Although Google maintains that they do not personalise organic search results, there have been significant ongoing debates about to what extent search results are optimised based on the unique characteristics of a specific search that can impact the way search results are stacked and served. The amount that search is 'personalised' changes over time. All of this is particularly relevant to electoral campaigns because studies have shown that filter bubbles, based on data about the search inquiry and the searcher, tend to arise more when searches are about political issues or candidates. All of these examples focus on the United States, but since Google Search and YouTube are widely used globally it has implications for different contexts.

1 At the time of writing this service was only available for US political advertisements.

Author: Raquel Rennó