Google: The Role of Internet Search in Elections in Established and Challenged Democracies
How do search engines contribute to voter knowledge in elections? Social scientists have long noted that informed citizens are critical to sustaining democracy, while authoritarian regimes are marked by their control of information flow. While the internet in general, and search engines in particular, provide new and unprecedented ways for citizens to access information, there has been little specific research into how voters employ search engines as they carry out the democratic task of gathering information in election campaigns. This is a particularly important question, as search engine results themselves will come to reflect and prioritize citizen preferences. Do citizens in established democracies search in ways that differ from those in transitional or challenged democracies? What sorts of search terms – candidates, parties, ideas, values, religions or other themes – do they favour? Do search patterns tend to direct citizens into information ‘cocoons’ or ‘trajectories’ with a narrow range of traditional information sources such as party websites and dominant media outlets or does search engine behaviour tend to continually expose individuals to a broad range of political messages?
Through a transnational study of search engine behaviour, primarily gathered via Google Trends, this project will use the power of search choices and popularity to examine how and when people are choosing to gather information in a range of elections. Through comparing how citizens in established democracies (the United Kingdom and the United States), challenged democracies (Italy) and transitional states (Egypt) use search engines in election campaigns, this project will reveal how search engines function in the dissemination of information during critical political events. We will combine methods and approaches across political communication research, with a focus on sociology, political science and media studies.