Candidates compete for rankings on search engines

REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
A photo of the Google Inc. logo is shown on a computer screen in San Francisco, California July 16, 2009.

Eight years have passed since the ban on using internet platforms for election campaigns was lifted. It has since become common for candidates to promote their policies on their blogs or social media accounts during election campaign periods.

Consequently, as such platforms have become more popular, there is a motivation to drive candidates’ posts higher on search engine rankings, so as to draw greater attention from voters. At the same time, this motivation has also led to acts that could distort the will of the people.

In April, an election was held for the city assembly of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. This election turned out to be a fierce one, with 39 candidates competing for seats in the 26-member assembly.

In a Google search for “Kamakura city assembly election” on April 24, the day before the vote, a blog of company executive and first-time candidate Asako Fujimoto was displayed high up in the search results, along with news agency articles.

Fujimoto, 36, moved to Kamakura last year to start up a business. With no support from any political party, she made great efforts to use the internet in her campaign.

During the election campaign period, she posted messages on her blog every day. On the final day of her campaign, she posted as many as 13 times. Most of her blog messages contained short appeals, such as “I will create the future of Kamakura.” But they were viewed about 25,000 times in the week before the vote. Garnering 1,852 votes, Fujimoto was elected for the first time, in 20th place.

Fujimoto used the website Senkyo Dot Com to promote her campaign, paying ¥30,000 as a registration fee. This website started its services in 2017, with the selling point of “having a candidate’s blog displayed at a place that will get attention.”

Senkyo Dot Com employs a method of search engine optimization (SEO), the practice of increasing the visibility of websites for related searches, by taking into account the characteristics of Google.

The display order in the search results on Google is determined by an algorithm and based on such factors as the newness of postings, in addition to the number of views and relevancy. The more constantly a blog is updated, the higher its visibility, as the renewal of messages will be recognized as “new information.”

Moreover, a candidate’s blog within Senkyo Dot Com will be recognized as a “news article” on Google, putting it on par with articles from news media outlets.

Suguru Takahata, 44, president of Ichini Inc., the Tokyo-based company that operates Senkyo Dot Com, said, “In elections for local assemblies in particular, there is a strong tendency of voters to cast their votes for candidates whose names they are familiar with, thus the display order in search results greatly affects the election outcome.”

According to Ichini, the number of registered users has totaled about 2,500, mainly local assembly members, showing a 2.5-fold increase from two years ago.

On the flip side of the SEO approach, there have been instances of the Google algorithm being exploited as if to deceive voters.

During the 2019 House of Councillors election, a consultant who joined the campaign of one candidate in western Japan employed a gimmick to elevating his candidate above a rival, even when searching websites using the name of the rival candidate.

By including the name of the rival in posts by his candidate, which had attached video, the consultant said he “caused the search engine to misconceive the search results.”

As some within the campaign voiced doubts, saying it was “not a fair means,” the underhanded tactic was stopped within 10 days’ time.

Kazunori Kawamura, an associate professor at Tohoku University and a scholar of political science, said: “There is a possibility of such acts as clandestinely obstructing an election campaign of rival candidates taking place on the internet. To maintain fairness, administrative and investigative authorities must reinforce their patrolling on the posting of false information and spoofing, and at the same time it is necessary to craft rules that would make it obligatory for leading tech business operators to take relevant measures.”