On Aug. 25 the front page of The Wall Street Journal got my attention. The headline spread over six columns: “Markets Reel in Global Selloff — Wild Ride Leaves Investors Gasping.” On the left a sub headline warned, “Risks Rise in U.S. As World Staggers.”
The message was clear: This event is important. You need to read about it. And so I did, following the headlines into the paper for two-and-a-half full pages of news and commentary about the market decline and what it meant, and at least three more full pages in the Money & Investing section, with an extended discussion of how the volatility was affecting investors and businesses.
I learned that a couple in Oregon called their broker to liquidate their stocks and that investors were piling into U.S. Treasuries as they scrambled to protect their money.
Five days later everything changed. The lead article on page one read, “The big question worrying investors now is whether last week’s rally is sustainable or just the prelude to another storm.”
I can’t count how many similar articles I have read like this over the years — perhaps hundreds. The format goes something like this: The market has moved sharply/gently down/up; investors are concerned about whether the market will continue/reverse; we interviewed three experts who will briefly summarize their optimistic/pessimistic outlooks.
The time periods change, the reporters change, the experts change, but the message is always the same: “What is happening in the market now and may happen in the very near future is significant; there is no agreement about what it all means, but you need to be concerned.”
The influence of the media on our thinking is well documented. Companies wouldn’t spend trillions of dollars on advertising if it didn’t influence consumers to buy their products, and newspapers wouldn’t print stories if subscribers didn’t read them. Repetitive messages in the media are reinforced by social interaction (“How was the market today?”) and our own inherent biases (finding patterns where they don’t exist). They shape our thinking and our behavior.
Just as the media has gone through a radical transformation, so has its influence. That influence is now being delivered without our knowledge, through the most benign and utilitarian format: the search engine. The search engine is the Yellow Pages, the White Pages, Encyclopedia Britannica, Whole Earth Catalog, Library of Congress and a whole lot more rolled into one convenient location. It is the most popular, most used and perhaps most valuable tool on the Internet. It is how we find stuff. How could that be dangerous?
The first inkling that a search engine might not be as neutral a tool as we imagined came with the emergence of its most successful exploiter: Google.
Google’s managers stumbled upon the insight that the connection between searches and the searcher had enormous commercial value — leading to their domination of an entirely new form of advertising. They gave us access to information, and we gave them access to what we were looking for. Our privacy was compromised, perhaps permanently — but that is nothing compared to how our growing reliance on search results is changing our perception of reality.
If researchers Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson are correct, the rankings of search results that we see after we type a question are influencing our attitudes, preferences and behavior — so much so that elections can be manipulated by changing the search results — and they go to great lengths to show how easy it is.
Their findings were detailed in a recent report about what they call “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They wrote: “Biased search ranking can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more.”