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Persuasive proof that America is full of racist and selfish people

What millions of Google searches reveal about our national psyche.

“Google is a digital truth serum,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Lies, told me in a recent interview. “People tell Google things that they don’t tell to possibly anybody else, things they might not tell to family members, friends, anonymous surveys, or doctors.”

Stephens-Davidowitz was working on a PhD in economics at Harvard when he became obsessed with Google Trends, a tool that tracks how frequently searches are made in a given area over a given time period.

He spent five years combing through this data. The idea was that you could get far better real-time information about what people are thinking by looking at Google Trends data than you could through polls or some other survey device.

It turns out he was right.

As a barometer of our national consciousness, Google is as accurate (and predictive) as it gets. In 2016, when the Republican primaries were just beginning, most pundits and pollsters did not believe Trump could win. After all, he had insulted veterans, women, minorities, and countless other constituencies.

But Stephens-Davidowitz saw clues in his Google research that suggested Trump was far more serious than many supposed. 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.

Stephens-Davidowitz saw in the Google Trends data a racially polarized electorate, and one primed to respond to the ethno-nationalist rhetoric of Trump.

There were earlier signs, too. On Obama’s 2008 election night, Stephens-Davidowitz found that “one in every hundred Google searches that included the word ‘Obama’ also included ‘KKK’” or the n-word. Searches for racist websites like Stormfront also spiked.

“There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from traditional sources,” Stephens-Davidowitz says. “Those searches are hard to reconcile with a society in which racism is a small factor.”

Racial attitudes are just one of the many interesting discoveries in Stephens-Davidowitz’s research. He also explores the disconnect between our social media lives and our actual lives, between what we talk about publicly and what we think about privately.

I spoke with him last week about the book and why he thinks Google Trends is “the most important data set ever collected on the human psyche.” I also ask him about his most startling finding, which is that America is experiencing a crisis of self-induced abortions in places where access to abortion clinics is sparse.

Our lightly edited conversation follows.


Sean Illing

You refer to Google as a digital truth serum. What does it tell us about ourselves?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

People tell Google things that they don’t tell to possibly anybody else, things they might not tell to family members, friends, anonymous surveys, doctors. People feel very comfortable confessing things to Google. 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 than they often present themselves.

I’ve done a lot of research on racism, for example, and I was shocked by how frequently people make racist searches, particularly for jokes mocking African Americans. This concealed ugliness can predict a lot of behaviors, particularly in the political realm.

Sean Illing

Speaking of politics, you believed way back in early 2016 that Trump was a serious candidate. You were looking at Google search activity, saw a spike in racist and misogynistic searches, and thought that was a sign of things to come.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, I did say that I thought Trump was going to win very, very early, but I’m not sure if that was based purely on the data or just because I’m a total pessimist. I always have been fairly pessimistic about this kind of thing.

Sean Illing

Welcome to the club.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I’m always predicting horrible things are going to happen, with or without data. But I think there were definitely some clues on the internet that Trump should have been taken more seriously than other people were taking him.

Sean Illing

What were you seeing exactly?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The first thing was that the level of racism in this country was a lot higher than I had realized. I think a lot of people thought that Trump would be done as soon as he started saying all these racially charged things. I think when you look at this internet data, you see the demand for this type of material.

I mean, I had even been studying white nationalist sites like Stormfront for a long time, long before most people knew about it, and still I was shocked by how widespread the appeal of these sites were.

Sean Illing

This is what we should’ve been paying attention to, not these outdated polling methods.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

You can’t really predict using surveys who’s going to turn out in an election because everybody says they’re going to vote, nobody wants to admit that they have no intention of voting. But you can predict who’s going to vote based on their Google searches. People search how to vote, or where to vote, or polling places weeks before an election and that predicts that turnout will be high.

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, for example. It was very 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.

Sean Illing

The political utility of this data is obvious, but it seems like there’s no limit to what we can learn about ourselves. In the book, you call it “the most important data set ever collected on the human psyche.”

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think the only real competition is Facebook, and I don’t think that’s as interesting a data set because people are so much less honest on Facebook. People are really, really honest on Google, so they tell Google things that they don’t tell anybody else. They search for answers to questions they won’t ask anyone else. I’ve found this over the past few years: Take any subject area and look at Google searches and you can find something new and interesting and surprising that we didn’t know. Whether it’s hatred or abortion or child abuse or political views or pregnancy or anxiety or depression. Pretty much every time I turn to Google data, there’s something there that is interesting.

Sean Illing

I guess polls are still useful, but search histories are a much better way to get a sense of what people are thinking about controversial or personal subjects.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, and those are the most interesting things.

Sean Illing

No doubt.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

They are also often the most important. One of the studies I talk about in the book is a study of Islamophobia. It’s not really Islamophobia, it’s like Islamo-rage, or something like that. It’s essentially people with horrifically violent thoughts toward Muslim Americans. People search things like “kill Muslims” or “I hate Muslims” or “Muslims are evil.” These people are basically maniacs and you can actually see minute-by-minute when these searches rise and when these searches fall.

What’s interesting about this is that we’re talking about a relatively small group of maniacs. The average American does not search “kill Muslims” or “I hate Muslims”; it’s a small group but it’s also an important group because these types of people can create a lot of problems. They are the ones who tend to commit hate crimes or even murder Muslims.

That’s what I mean when I say you can get insights on topics that are truly important.

Sean Illing

Let’s zoom back a bit and get a broader sense of the American psyche as revealed by Google. What do Americans fear the most or worry about the most?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I’d say that one’s own body is a pretty big one. If you look at Google AdWords data on bodily insecurity, people who go around looking for ways to lose weight or improve their body, these are almost as popular among men as among women, which is not usually talked about. Twenty percent of searches looking to change one’s breasts are from men looking into how to get rid of man boobs. I think male bodily insecurity is not usually talked about but is extremely prevalent.

Sean Illing

That’s interesting.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, and also not what you’d expect given our cultural biases.

Sean Illing

Have you found that people are basically dishonest about they actually care about? In the age of social media, everyone’s a warrior for justice — you post an article or two, proclaim your outrage or support, and boom you’re an “engaged” person. But that’s not real activism and it doesn’t require any real commitment.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s a good question. I’ve explored this is in some of my Trump-related research. I think a lot of people exaggerate the extent to which they’re anxious about Trump. It’s kind of a game that people play. If you look at what really keeps people up at night, what really wakes them up at 3:00 am in a cold sweat, it tends to be economic concerns or health paranoia or legal fears — basically selfish concerns. But I think there’s something a little bit unpleasant about that fact.

People like to say that they’re anxious about more global concerns about Trump and what he might do to the world, rather than more selfish concerns about one’s own economics or health or legal problems. I think people exaggerate. There’s a lot of lying about what we actually care about and what actually moves us and what actually makes us sad, what actually makes us anxious.

Author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Sean Illing

What’s the most shocking finding of your research?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I’m pretty convinced that the United States has a self-induced abortion crisis right now based on the volume of search inquiries. 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.

That’s pretty disturbing and I think isn’t really being talked about. But I think, based on the data, it’s clearly going on.

Sean Illing

That’s appalling if it’s true. Give me some good news. Have you discovered anything pleasant?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think it’s refreshing to learn that we’re not alone in our anxieties or insecurities or desires. Alcoholics Anonymous has this phrase, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. But that’s hard because we don’t see other people’s insides, but I think with this search data, we actually, for the first time, do see other people’s insides, and it shows that we should be easier on ourselves.

Sean Illing

Do you think we should spend less time online?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, I want people to spend a lot of time online so that the data gets better and I can do more research.

Sean Illing

I guess I walked right into that answer. Would you at least say that people should take it less seriously, to not take their emotional cues from their Facebook feeds?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Sure. Social media can be dangerous if you think that that’s real life. It’s not, and we shouldn’t forget that. But people can buy my book and then anytime they’re feeling jealous they can read it and be reminded that everyone’s a mess.

Sean Illing

I think we should leave it right there.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Indeed.

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