Portrait of young woman standing near big virtual display with w

Research shows they could — if they decided to do so. While there’s no indication that’s what they are doing, the same research says it could happen and most of us would never know.

If you want to get right to the research, skip down the page a bit. But first, the undeniable impact of social media on politics and elections around the world is playing out again in two countries.

ghanaGhana: Shut down social media on election day?

In Ghana, the Police Service says they are considering shutting down social media on election day. It doesn’t have widespread support, and some question whether it’s even legal. But they’re thinking about it.

“There is no indication if this decision has the support of the rank and file of the Police Service and crucially the service heads such as the Chief of Defence Staff, Air and Naval commanders.” — President of IMANI Ghana Franklin Cudjoe

iranIran to Social Media Companies: Hand over all your data

In Iran, they’re looking for more than just a short-term situation. Iran’s government has given notice to any “foreign social media” that they have one year to hand over all of their data on users in Iran, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. They have demanded that any data they have on Iranian users be moved to servers inside the country.

Iran already blocks Twitter and Facebook for its citizens (although some figure out ways around that) and they are especially concerned about messaging apps.

“Foreign messaging companies active in the country are required to transfer all data and activity linked to Iranian citizens into the country in order to ensure their continued activity.” — Iran Supreme Council of Cyberspace.

fb-artWhile those methods are heavy-handed, it begs the question about the role social media can play in elections. While there’s no indication that Facebook is biased towards one political view (except for that recent report by one disgruntled former worker), there’s a belief that Facebook, and Google, hold significant power.

Pew Research suggests 62% of US online users report are getting their news from Facebook.  That’s an amazing amount of access.

Could Facebook or Google influence elections in the US?

A study done in the 2010 election, reported in New Republic, claims it directlymobilized 60,000 voters to get out to the polls after A/B testing graphics. With the ripple effect, they claim that an additional 340,000 people voted that day. Did it have an impact? George W. Bush won Florida (and the election) by 537 votes.

google logoGoogle handles 63% of US search and 89% worldwide.

Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology have researched what they call the “Search Engine Manipulation Effect.” They looked at whether Google could change voters’ mind by favoring a particular candidate.

The result?

They believe Google could “easily” impact 20% of undecided voters.That’s more than enough to swing almost any election. Even scarier, Epstein says virtually nobody would even know they had been manipulated.

With great power, comes great responsibility.

Around the globe, the two speculate that Google could manipulate up to 25% of national elections if it desired.

“Our new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters. In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session. The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger.” — Robert Epstein, writing in Politico