SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California officials this week raced to address a quirk in Google algorithms that can give voters a skewed look at ballot measures by producing biased excerpts from the state’s official election guide.
Google searches for seven of the state’s 12 ballot proposals have surfaced campaign arguments from the state voter guide instead of neutral “snippets,” said former cybersecurity executive Thomas Kemp. He said those search results could sway voters who rely on those first impressions to understand what the measures do, on subjects ranging from stem cell research to commercial property taxes.
His findings about Google — a de-facto roadmap for voters making their way through lengthy ballots — suggest that algorithms can turn even neutral sources into biased ones, a problem that could extend well beyond the nation’s tech capital.
The California secretary of state’s office is aware of the issue and is working to resolve it, Sam Mahood, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Alex Padilla, said Thursday. But the changes come just days before the election and after at least 40 percent of registered California voters have already returned their mail-in ballots.
The search results have also alarmed state Sen. Henry Stern, who is now considering legislation next year that would require Google and other tech companies to disclose how their algorithms work.
Stern said the findings “caught a lot of people by surprise and is very concerning because voters may not go deeper than that one simple Google search to find out about a ballot measure or what a candidate’s about.”
Kemp, former CEO of the cybersecurity firm Centrify, said he worked with Ballotpedia last month to correct a similar problem potentially affecting Google searches for measures nationwide. The organization confirmed his involvement and said it completed a technical fix as of Oct. 6 for the approximately 650 state and local campaigns it is tracking. It is using a Google tool to block the search engine from using the arguments on either side for its excerpts.
In one California example, a Google search of “Prop 24” on Thursday turned up this description of a November data privacy initiative from the state’s voter guide: “CON Proposition 24 reduces your privacy rights in California. Proposition 24 allows ‘pay for privacy’ schemes, makes workers wait years to learn what confidential …”
Kemp stressed in an interview that he believes the bias was inadvertent, noting that there didn’t appear to be a pattern in the results and sometimes they returned different arguments for the same measure based on whether someone searched for “Prop” or “Proposition.”
Still, he said, voters often look to sites that they consider to be sources of factual information to guide their decisions. If they see an argument listed next to a Ballotpedia link, rather than a more neutral description, they might become subconsciously influenced, he said.
Google maintains that its systems don’t understand language in the same way people do and that it would be inappropriate to set a blanket block on such arguments anyway, as some posts are meant to advance a point of view. A spokesperson for the company pointed to tools that website managers could use to control what is included in search result excerpts and noted that it has trained various organizations, including staffers from the California secretary of state’s office, on how to use them.
The spokesperson also pointed to an information panel that appears in response to searches of ballot measures, apart from the linked search results.
Kemp’s findings come in a year when deep-pocketed gig companies have made wide use of their platforms and services to influence the electorate. They shattered a milestone Thursday by surpassing $200 million spent toward Proposition 22, which would allow them to avoid having to classify their workers as employees. Several tech experts told POLITICO this month that the gig companies have opened the door for what even bigger platforms can do beneath the hood.
“The platforms are so powerful, and of course it’s the influence they can have on people,” Kemp said Thursday. “I’m not saying Google’s malicious, but if Google didn’t want a privacy initiative, they could really put their thumb on the scale.”
Kemp’s blog post elicited a strong reaction from Stern (D-Canoga Park), who serves on the California State Senate’s elections committee.
“Today @Google CEO told @SenateCommerce ‘we approach our work without any political bias,’” Stern tweeted, along with a screenshot of Kemp’s post. “But intent doesn’t matter when it comes to bias. It’s the results that matter. Or in this case, the search results.”
Kemp said he noticed earlier this fall that Google searches were turning up one-sided snippets next to Ballotpedia links and that he alerted the organization something was awry. A spokesperson for the organization said that after Kemp raised the issue, its team used a coding workaround provided by Google that directs the search engine to pull descriptive text from the neutral portions of its site.
“We are very grateful to have caring readers that help us make our content better for voters, no matter where they are reading it [even on search result pages],” said Ballotpedia spokesperson Kristen Vonasek.
Stern said Thursday that he might introduce legislation next year to require Google and other tech companies to make public disclosures about how their algorithms work. He said he immediately contacted Padilla’s office after learning about the biased proposition excerpts and was told the changes would be in place by Thursday night or Friday morning.