Short of stealing people’s diaries or tapping their phone calls, what else can researchers do to gather the most objective data possible?
For decades, social scientists have conducted research using some combination of surveys, census data, focus groups, interviews and observation techniques. With the exception of covert observation, which brings its own ethical issues, these methods have something in common: the dishonesty of people. These methods are all subject to human lies and, therefore, unable to paint a reliable picture of society’s true beliefs and darkest fears. In fact, the most objective forms of data are given up willingly, in private, where people are free from the worry of being judged. Short of stealing people’s diaries or tapping their phone calls, what else can researchers do to gather the most objective data possible?
In our digital era, the most obvious answer is also the correct one. But until now, few people have thought to leverage this tool and publicize their findings in such an accessible way and at such a pertinent time. What is the technology we all use to ask questions, seek validation and search for the most outrageous things?
Why of course, it’s Google. Many people would be embarrassed to publicly display their Google search history. I know mine is full of very silly things. But at the same time, these queries are deeply revealing, which is precisely why they strike a nerve. They display some of our deepest secrets. For example, a few years ago I used to get occasional panic attacks. I remember waking up at 3am in an unfamiliar country, caught in the midst of an attack, gasping for breath. To calm myself, I searched Google for reassurance that it was “just” a panic attack.
Google as Truth Serum
People search Google for all manner of things. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, the researcher who produced this study, found many searches for terms involving “abortions,” “closet gays,” “penis size” and “breastfeeding of husbands” (the latter being apparently popular in India). He also found other more sinister patterns, ones suggesting American racism was far more widespread than previously thought.
In fact, search data shows the idea of America as a “post-racial” society, much-touted after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, to be quite absurd. Google showed American racism and Islamophobia were thoroughly alive and kicking, even in places where people didn’t publicly admit to holding racist views. They espouse very different opinions in the privacy of their own homes, face-to-face only with Google. It’s Google as “truth serum.” Almost 10 years later, with Donald Trump at the helm, perhaps America is finally showing its true face.
Obama’s address to the nation after the 2015 San Bernardino attack provides an interesting example of how search data reflects hidden social views. In the speech, he aimed to calm outraged people and restore order to the country. In particular, he wanted to counteract the backlash that Muslim-Americans would surely face. While he was speaking of Muslims as “our friends,” “neighbors” and so on, Google search data was telling a different story. After each terrorist attack (and this happens in Britain too) the volume of negative and violent searches about Muslims skyrockets. Islamophobic searches like “kill all Muslims” become alarmingly high.
During most of Obama’s speech, these searches didn’t reduce or even level off. Instead they became even more frequent. This makes sense, because challenging people’s worldviews acts as an attack on their fundamental identity. In response, most will cling tighter to whatever they believe. But later in his speech, Obama changed tack. He introduced new images: not just of Muslim-Americans as friends and neighbors who should be respected, but also of Muslim soldiers, willing to die for America, and Muslim athletes, representing the country on the world stage.
And then, something changed in the data. Islamophobic searches slowed down, to be replaced with searches for “Muslim athletes” and “Muslim soldiers.” Something had resonated with the people searching; instead of responding predictably to Obama’s perceived “attack” on their entrenched worldviews, they had become curious.
I believe this happened for two reasons, partly because the idea of Muslims as athletes and soldiers resonated with “patriotic” American audiences. But also because these images perhaps helped to de-otherize public perceptions of Muslims. By drawing on resonant all-American themes, Obama associated Muslims with a set of positive images rather than just trying to convince wider America to accept them as a group. In response, albeit temporarily, the volume of Islamophobic searches slowed and included more positive searches.
This is encouraging in some ways, because despite the fleeting nature of this positivity, its presence suggests two important things: First, that Islamophobia is largely a problem of perceptions and, second, that the tide can be turned back. Negative views of Muslims have become deeply entrenched over the last three decades. Islamophobia as a public perception is regularly reinforced by mainstream media, by certain think tanks and their “experts,” and by reactions to the terrible deeds of the Islamic State — a group that has hijacked the image of Islam worldwide.
Can Google search data offer us the chance to fix some of society’s ills? Its revealing nature shows our darkest fears in a way no survey can ever do. Having this information (anonymous of course) could be used to bring issues into the open and address their root causes. In the case of Islamophobia, analyzing Google searches could reveal where the gaps and misperceptions lie in wider society’s understanding of Muslims. It could allow us to categorize the fears, misunderstandings and false perceptions. This could inform the design of social initiatives targeting specific problems, helping people understand each other better, and gain a stronger sense of reality over perception.
*[A version of this article was also featured on the author’s blog.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.