June 13, 2017; Vox
When Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Lies, studied data from Google Trends, he found that “There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from traditional sources.” He said, “Google is a digital truth serum. People tell Google things that they don’t tell to possibly anyone else.”
He predicted early on that Trump would win the 2016 election, noting that the high level of racism in Google searches indicated that there was a “demand for this type of material.” He was shocked by the widespread appeal of white nationalist sites like Stormfront. Further, “searches containing racist epithets and jokes were spiking across the country during Trump’s primary run, and not merely in the South but in upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, rural Illinois, West Virginia, and industrial Michigan.”
He also saw that you could predict voter turnout based on Google searches for “how to vote” and “where to vote.” He said, “In this election, you saw very, very clearly in the data that there was a huge decrease in these searches in cities with enormous African American populations. It was clear in the Google search data that black turnout was going to be way down in 2016, and that was one of the reasons Clinton did so much worse than the polls predicted.” He concluded that a racially polarized electorate was likely to respond to Trump’s ethno-nationalist rhetoric. He saw early signs of this during Obama’s campaign, when he noticed that 10 percent of searches containing the word “Obama” also contained “KKK” or “the n-word.”
He also saw the “horrifically violent thoughts” about Muslims and concluded that rather than Islamophobia, what is really at play is Islamo-rage. “People search things like ‘kill Muslims’ or ‘I hate Muslims’ or ‘Muslims are evil.’…and you can actually see minute-by-minute when these searches rise and when these searches fall.” He notes that though the people that do the searches are a relatively small group, they are the ones who are likely to commit hate crimes.
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Based on recent searches, he has also realized that the United States has a self-induced abortion crisis. He said, “I was blown away by how frequently people are searching for ways to do abortions themselves now. These searches are concentrated in parts of the country where it’s hard to get an abortion and they rose substantially when it became harder to get an abortion. They’re also, I calculate, missing pregnancies in these states that aren’t showing up in either abortion or birth rates.”
Stephens-Davidowitz came onto this area of study while working on a PhD in economics at Harvard. After five years combing through Google Trends data, he concluded that “as a barometer of our national consciousness, Google is as accurate (and predictive) as it gets…In general, Google tells us that people are different than they present themselves. One way they’re different, I have to say, is that they’re nastier and meaner.”
He calls Google data “the most important data set ever collected on the human psyche.” He thinks the only competition is Facebook, but notes that people are “so much less honest on Facebook.”
While there have been uses of Google data in the nonprofit sector, buying access to it is expensive. However, given the implications of not knowing and the ability to know, one may wonder if nonprofits should be paying attention to the hidden trends that affect our work and render our strategies ineffective.—Cyndi Suarez