The answer to the question in the headline is a resounding “who knows?”, but the question is being asked by some pretty intelligent people (more on that below), and given the generally amoral focus on profitability on the part of many tech industry leaders, it would be almost negligent of someone like Schmidt to not at least try to do so. So why is this question even being raised? Well, the basic motivations are simple. First of all, open your mind to the facts that a) Google accounts for more than 80% of searches performed by American internet users, and b) 90% of them don’t look past the first page of results. Second, ponder the idea that on top of the possible benefits to Google of manipulating results, there’s nothing at all illegal about doing it. And historically, successful campaigns have relied more on the public’s ignorance and gullibility, not facts and honesty.
Although Schmidt doesn’t appear to have publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, the CTO for her campaign was hired away from Google last fall. Also in the latter half of 2015, an under the radar startup (as everyone is referring to it) was launched to assist with the data and tech needs of the Clinton campaign. Schmidt is one of the key investors, and although the organization’s parent company Timshel is a little less opaque, the website for the startup itself – it’s called The Groundwork – plays nicely into the imagination of the tinfoil hat crowd with a simple greyed-out page featuring nothing but an Illuminati-like symbol:
But it’s not tinfoil hat types who are asking the intriguing questions here. For some long-form exploration of the topic, check out The New Mind Control on Aeon, a preview of psychology Ph.D. Robert Epstein’s upcoming book. It’s an interesting exploration of the possibilities of manipulating election sentiment by manipulating search results. Epstein’s piece comes across as somewhat biased – he has a book to sell after all – but the underlying speculation is perfectly reasonable. You might also want to check out Radio Boston’s interview with Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder and director at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, in which the question is asked Could Facebook Or Google Manipulate An Election? And lastly, for a third-party take on these two sources, maybe peruse Adam Rogers’ rather dramatically titled piece Google’s Search Algorithm Could Steal the Presidency on Wired.
Our hunch is that the extra percentages gained this way in election cycle might be Trumped by brute-force spending, especially when this is how the field looks: