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Donald Trump tweeted on August 19, 2019

Wow, Report Just Out! Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election! This was put out by a Clinton supporter, not a Trump Supporter! Google should be sued. My victory was even bigger than thought!

The Hill explains the context of the tweet:

Trump appears to be referring to the work of Robert Epstein, a researcher with a group based in Vista, Calif., called the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Epstein testified in a Senate hearing in June about what he calls the "Search Engine Manipulation Effect" and claimed that his research shows Google's search results pushed at least 2.6 million people to vote for Clinton in 2016.

The Hill goes on to quote Google's CEO as denying it.

Did Google manipulate its search engine results to push many millions of voters towards Clinton?

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20

No.

The NYT has a good breakdown of why this claim is inaccurate. Epstein is quoted as saying that the numbers Trump gives are incorrect.

The white paper that is the source of the claim Trump is referring to was released in 2017, and in fact states that 2.6 million is the potential number of votes that could be influenced IF Google had actively manipulated search results. It presents no evidence that Google did anything of the kind.

Panagiotis Metaxas, a computer science professor at Wellesley College, states “I and other researchers who have been auditing search results for years know that this did not happen.”

Note that the paper itself contains huge caveats. It was not peer reviewed and based on a study of only 95 people's browsing habits, of which only 21 described themselves as undecided.

The figure of 2.6 million is based on a previous estimate Epstein made that manipulation could shift voting by up to 20%. Nicholas Diakopoulos, an assistant professor in communication studies at Northwestern University, describes this as a "leap of faith."

  • @Anush Epstein names at least a close number: 'In an interview with CNN on Monday, Epstein said the pro-Clinton bias was "sufficient to have shifted between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes" to Clinton. There is no basis in Epstein's research for Trump's claim that the alleged bias might have affected "16 million" votes. Epstein did testify in July that big tech companies in general could potentially shift "upwards of 15 million votes" in the 2020 election, but he didn't claim that this happened in 2016.' – tim Aug 20 at 20:46
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    The 15m is of course not 16m, and it's about something else entirely, just like the 2.6m is not about manipulation but bias, and not based on a peer-reviewed study, and extrapolated from a ridiculous small sample (without actually knowing if the bias affects voting), and using a weird definition of "bias" where ranking far-right fake news lower than reputable journalism is biased, but I guess it's close enough to say that Trump didn't pull it out of nothing. – tim Aug 20 at 20:47
  • Is sample size a problem? If so, why? – Andrew Grimm Aug 20 at 22:28
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Politifact rated the claim "False" on 19 August 2019.


Politifact examined the claim, reaching out to both the author of the paper and other researchers.

From Robert Epstein himself -

We reached out to Epstein to ask if he took issue with how Trump characterized his findings.

"I sure do," said Epstein, who supported Clinton in 2016. "I have never said that Google deliberately manipulated the 2016 election."

From other researchers -

"(Robert Epstein et al) can't even define what biased search results are — they simply piped them off to a crowd-sourcing site and asked random people, ‘Is this search results page biased or not?’ " said Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. "What does that even mean?"

[...]

"(Robert Epstein et al) eliminated anyone using a Gmail address because their search results weren't considered ‘biased,’ speculating that Google was intentionally poisoning their research," Singel said. "That's both equally laughable and sad."

[...]

We reached out to Nicholas Diakopoulos, a professor in communication studies and computer science at Northwestern University, to ask how researchers could get from 25 days’ worth of search results from 95 subjects to millions of manipulated votes.

"There's not enough information in the whitepaper about how the estimate was done," Diakopoulos said.

He said the researchers likely developed a mathematical formula that seeks to translate examples of bias they collected into estimates of voter impact.

"But again there is not enough information in the whitepaper to say definitively how their ‘computational model’ works," he said, "and whether it is a valid estimate based on the assumptions built into the model."

  • If you watch Epstein's testimony, he specifically says "it was a vote manipulation". I really don't see why he'd then supposedly claim the opposite. – MaxB Aug 20 at 17:25
  • @MaxB Can you link to it? – Anush Aug 20 at 17:37
  • Epstein specifically calls Google's 2018 get-out-the-vote effort vote manipulation: youtu.be/OdkWqMIqEbo?t=226 / judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Epstein%20Testimony.pdf "In other words, Google’s “Go Vote” prompt was not a public service; it was a vote manipulation." – Tgr Aug 25 at 13:15
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    (This was when the "Google" logo on the main page was replaced with "Go Vote" during election day. Epstein argues that with Google's userbase skewing slightly Democrat, this resulted in more Democrat than Republican votes, and given that Google was no doubt able to predict this, and could have chosen not to do that get-out-the-vote campaign but did it anyway, what they did was intentional vote manipulation. It's a pretty sketchy claim, and distinct from his main claim about Google influencing voters via search result ranking.) – Tgr Aug 25 at 13:25

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