Outside the Box

The New Mind Control

February 26, 2016

In today’s Outside the Box, Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, warns us of a insidious and pervasive new form of mind control: search results.

That’s right, search results. And not just any search results: Google search results. Since 2013 Epstein and colleagues have conducted a number of experiments in the US and India to determine whether search results can impact people’s political opinions.

Epstein points out that about 50 percent of our clicks go to the top two items on the first page of results, and more than 90 percent of our clicks go to the 10 items listed. And of course Google, which dominates the search business, decides which of the billions of web pages to include in our search results, and it decides how to rank them.

But surely, Epstein thought, a top search result would have only a small impact on a person’s political choices. Not so! To Epstein’s surprise, in his initial experiment he found that the proportion of people favouring the (bogus, skewed) search engine’s top-ranked candidate increased by more than 48 percent! Also, 75 percent of the subjects in the study were completely unaware that they were viewing biased search rankings.

He conducted several more experiments, including one that involved more than 2,000 people from all 50 US states. In that experiment, the shift in voting preferences induced by the researchers was 37 percent, and as high as 80 percent in some demographic groups.

Epstein was still skeptical. He asked,

Could voting preferences be shifted with real voters in the middle of a real campaign? … In real elections, people are bombarded with multiple sources of information, and they also know a lot about the candidates. It seemed unlikely that a single experience on a search engine would have much impact on their voting preferences.

So off his team went to India. They arrived just before voting began in the largest democratic election in the world, to select the nation’s prime minister. They recruited 2,150 people from 27 of India’s 35 states and territories to participate in their experiment. (To take part, they had to be registered voters who had not yet voted and who were still undecided about how they would vote.)

Again, Epstein predicted that their manipulation of search results would produce only a very small effect, if any – but that’s not what happened. On average, the researchers were able to shift the proportion of people favoring any given candidate by more than 20 percent overall and by more than 60 percent in some demographic groups. In addition, 99.5 percent of participants showed no awareness that they were viewing biased search rankings.

So this was all quite surprising. Says Epstein:

We published a detailed report about our first five experiments … in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in August 2015. We had indeed found something important, especially given Google’s dominance over search. Google has a near-monopoly on internet searches in the US, with 83 per cent of Americans specifying Google as the search engine they use most often, according to the Pew Research Center. So if Google favours one candidate in an election, its impact on undecided voters could easily decide the election’s outcome.

But that’s a big “could.” I was skeptical, too. Would Google ever act so nefariously? Aren’t those Silicon Valley guys all live-and-let-die free-market Libertarians? And then I thought again. The presidency of the United States is a big deal. The president may not be all-powerful, but he (or maybe, in the near future, she) is about as close as it comes on this planet. And national elections – whether in this country or any other – have never exactly been squeaky clean. They have always been about big money, and in recent decades they have been about big media. Now, says Epstein, they are also about big data.

So let’s say Google decided that it was in the best interests of all concerned to do whatever it could to help us select our next president. How might it go about it? Says Epstein,

(I)f Google set about to fix an election, it could first dip into its massive database of personal information to identify just those voters who are undecided. Then it could, day after day, send customised rankings favouring one candidate to just those people. One advantage of this approach is that it would make Google’s manipulation extremely difficult for investigators to detect.

But it gets scarier – and a lot more real – when we remember that in the 2012 presidential election, Google and its top execs contributed more than $800,000 to Barack Obama and just $37,000 to Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, have you heard of The Groundwork? That would be the outfit that Quartz describes as “The stealthy, Eric Schmidt-backed startup that’s working to put Hillary Clinton in the White House” – Eric Schmidt being the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

(Amusing sidebar: Google “the groundwork” and then click on the No. 1 result. That’s right, you get this:

Just one page. No links. Sinister? You betcha.)

There’s more – a lot more – to Epstein’s cautionary tale, so I’ll get out of the way and let him tell it.

But first, let me mention that although the Strategic Investment Conference (May 24-27 in Dallas) is sold out, we’re trying hard to find a way to accommodate a few more people without compromising the experience for those who have already registered. We have created a waiting list, and you can click on this link and pay a small fee (which is refundable) to get on it. Seriously, we expanded the room this year and thought we were fine – then we sold out in less than a month. I have friends calling me up and begging to get in. Believe me when I say we are trying, but there is a space issue. So even if we are BFF’s, get on that list! THEN call. The only way to be fair and to save my sanity is to do this on a first-come, first-served basis. The line is growing, so even though the conference is three months away, sign up NOW!

Your searching for answers analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

Get John Mauldin's Over My Shoulder

"Must See" Research Directly from John Mauldin to You

Be the best-informed person in the room
with your very own risk-free trial of Over My Shoulder.
Join John Mauldin's private readers’ circle, today.

The New Mind Control

By Robert Epstein
(Originally published on Aeon.co)

The internet has spawned subtle forms of influence that can flip elections and manipulate everything we say, think and do.

Over the past century, more than a few great writers have expressed concern about humanity’s future. In The Iron Heel (1908), the American writer Jack London pictured a world in…

Get Varying Expert Opinions in One Publication with John Mauldin’s Outside the Box
Every week, celebrated economic commentator John Mauldin highlights a well-researched, controversial essay from a fellow economic expert. Whether you find them inspiring, upsetting, or outrageous... they’ll all make you think Outside the Box. Get the newsletter free in your inbox every Wednesday.

Discuss This


We welcome your comments. Please comply with our Community Rules.


Mark Tepper

Feb. 28, 8:55 a.m.

Frightening information. The narrative goes right along with the attitude of Eric Schmidt seen on you tube videos in which he states directly that if you have nothing to hide you should not be concerned about your privacy.
For anyone who doubts the effort in manipulating us consumers/voters I strongly suggest you read “Subliminal Seduction”, a book I read decades ago that opened my eyes to the behind the scenes manipulation that we are exposed to but not aware of. This book is still available if you search around.
On the wider front it is little surprise to me that the most manipulative and controlling forces are aligned behind the candidate “of the people”.


Feb. 27, 4:45 p.m.

I have stated repeatedly that the many favorable court decisions for Google should be scrutinized for this exact bias. Their ability to overturn, in particular patent infringement cases, flies in the face of the common sense decisions of the experts and jurors in the lower court rulings.


Feb. 27, 8:40 a.m.

The Author research and his findings are important. However, recall that emotional and cognitive manipulation had been well advanced thousands of years before Google was born (Oracles and sibyls anyone?).

Recently in the last 50 years the surge of Semantic control, the ‘newspeak’ of political correctness is specially insidious and incomparable more harmful because it prims the cognition in subltle ways by manipulation of context and connotation, so even “High educated” persons are affected. People can only be truly free by exercising a very deliberate reflection, developing awareness and trying to be fully conscious more frequent and for longer times. Get out of the automatic pilot.

A last stanza from à propos Poem (Free translation without rhyme. Title denotation: From Latin intimāre, to proclaim, to impress (upon)] 


Open in the name of the law
Open without name and law
Open even in absence of king
Open alone or herd
No, do not open; by force
from intimating,  notice
Already I disembowel you

(Carlos Drumond de Andrade)


Peter Sokolowski

Feb. 27, 8:11 a.m.

This is a frightening situation, sadly the solution is a more aware citizenry. That can’t happen with the present “educational” system.
Another field ripe for evaluation is the present love of survey results that post the answers to unknown questions. Question construction can lead to any answer the questioner wants to elicit.


Feb. 26, 11:12 p.m.

I suspected something like this, but didn’t know it was this bad.  Thanks for the information.


Feb. 26, 5:53 p.m.

John, No comment on how this could be used to manipulate investor decisions?


Feb. 26, 12:30 p.m.

When two different users enter the same search terms into a Google search box at the same time, they almost always get different results, either with the number of hits, or with the pre-selected, pre-oredered info that is returned to them, or both.

So they’re already tailoring your searches to YOU, specifically.

Now watch Donald Trump get demonized, as the mindless lemmings head-nod in agreement — unaware that they are being led by an invisible ring through their noses…

jack goldman

Feb. 26, 10:54 a.m.

Dow was 1,000 silver dollars in 1966 and is 1,000 silver dollars today. Houses were 10,000 silver dollars in 1966 and houses are 10,000 silver dollars today. We are rats in a maze, experiments for the private, secret, foreign owned Federal Reserve bank and Google. The tribe owns both. America has been taken over like cattle to be milked, sheep to be fleeced, chickens who have their chicks harvested at college. Wall Street bankers, brokers, owners, and government employees have taken us over. Only a collapse of the debt can free us. What an interesting time to be alive. Google as mind control? That was the whole purpose of the internet and Google, along with the Fed. Get it? Thanks for the revealing article. Move along now. These are not the droids you are looking for.


Feb. 26, 10:53 a.m.

It has been “Nineteen Eighty-Four” longer than we know.