Not a Pretty Picture

Vox recently reported on a research project that led to publication of a book titled “Everyone Lies.” If you are one of those people who suspects that humanity is filled with people who are anything but noble, it’s apparently the book for you.

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.

Whatever face people assume when they are interacting with other humans, they are clearly far more candid with Google; during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Stephens-Davidowitz tallied numerous searches with racist epithets and “jokes,” finding that those spiked across the country during Trump’s primary run, and not merely in the South. The data painted a picture of a racially polarized electorate that responded to what he termed Trump’s “ethno-nationalist” rhetoric.

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.”

The Google search data didn’t just confirm the suspicions of many of us about the extent of racism (and the extent to which irrational hatred and opposition to Obama was based upon the color of his skin). One of the most startling findings was that America is returning to the era of “back alley” abortions–experiencing a crisis of self-induced abortions in places where draconian state laws have cut off most access to abortion clinics.

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.

As the author notes, people share things with Google that they don’t tell anyone else, not even family members, close friends, anonymous surveys, or their 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.

The data also sheds light on anti-Muslim attitudes.

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.

Clearly, Google and other emerging technologies can teach us a lot about ourselves. Of course, as the old joke goes, “This book taught me much that I did not wish to know.” The question is whether we can use these hitherto unavailable insights in ways that improve us. Given our irrational responses to data we already possess (responding to episodes of gun violence by advocating for more guns and less regulation, as we’ve just seen again, for example), it’s hard to be optimistic.


  1. It seems to me that Google and the research quoted does not bring forth new information but rather reinforces what we already know. Quantifying what we wish to ignore.

    It is no harder for me to be optimistic today with this information than it was in the days of the bombing of the Church in Birmingham.

  2. The first, actually the only question which came to my mind is; was he researching numbers or did he include WHO was making these searches? If following individuals or specific groups Googling those sites, isn’t that considered “hacking”? I have frequently Googled questionable sites looking for sources, definitions and who supports them. I did this frequently to respond factually and intelligently to people who sent me racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ E-mails and newsletters they had received during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and felt a need to share this information with me to “protect me”. I once spent four days researching 24 anti-Obama accusations to numerous sources and the facts, “alternative facts”, lies and distortions behind them led to racist web sites. I found the same 24 accusations on Google in many different formats; verbatim, quotatum and punctuatum, some very professionally presented.

    This takes me back to what my wise old friend told me years ago when he sent me to the Indiana State House to research information on a bill going before the legislature which would allow 14 year-olds to quit school. He said I could find “facts” to prove any issue if I knew where to look so to be careful regarding sources of data.

  3. As usual, JoAnn brings up another viewpoint and adds greatly to the discussion here.

    I agree with Anthony too. Having this information only confirms what we already know. Yet armed with the information is in itself a step forward.

  4. Google today offers 87, 800,000 results for pornography and only 42,400,000 results for generosity; on the other hand, it dishes up 414,000,000 results for guns but over 8 billion results for love. Try it yourself. Test a number of words in the Google search box and be surprised at the number of results. But don’t expect to see a pattern.

  5. If you are reading this blog, your device (desktop, laptop, iPad, or cell phone) is connected to the Internet by a specific address, an Internet Protocol address (IP address). Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) knows your name and physical address and maintains your privacy unless of course, you use the Internet for activities that have a strong potential to place you on the wrong side of the law and in a courtroom.

  6. Seriously-one only had to watch a single wingnut pol do an interview on mainstream media and then watch that same wingnut let it all hang out on Fake Noize. You would swear they were two different people occupying the same body. I mean the difference is black and white. The hate really shines through at Wingnut central-Fake Noise.

  7. Too bad Google can’t act like a teacher. Instead, it acts like an absentee father who, when he does manage to see his children, gives them everything they want.

  8. Racism-tribalism has most likely always been part of being a “human being.” It appears to be built into our human DNA. Our chances for day-to-day survival once was promoted and advanced by a healthy fear of “the other(s).

    For the most in our modern, supposedly civilized society, those who receive a civilized upbringing from parents, teachers, and other role models tend to be able to understand that this primal fear of the other, especially those who don’t look like “us,” or dress like “us,” or talk like “us,” and especially pray to the “same” god as “we” do,” usually isn’t rational, and learn to recognize that 99.9 times out of 100 we have more in common with these “others” than separates us.

    Nonetheless, it’s not terribly surprising that when we are alone and think no one is watching that many of us engage in thoughts and ideas that our thin veneer of civility warns us would not be approved of if we espoused, expressed, or acted upon them in public. So what you see in the public view is, of course, just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

    The alarming thing is that in our current situation we have one man, who by his words and actions, is enabling these people to be more open and vocal about their racism and hate. If the President can say/do it, it must be ok! The longer Trump is president and is in power, the more and more these folks are going to feel empowered to express and act on their hate in public. The question is can you put the Genie back in the bottle once it has been allowed to escape and pollute our society?

  9. Google began as a simple in concept but extremely technically difficult to execute tool. Find the needle in a haystack. The technical competence has, suprisingly to me anyway, kept up with the demand. Now rank amateurs can search essentially the whole of human knowledge and find answers to every question, some of which are factual.

    Now that the tool exists in all of its glory we are stuck figuring out its prime use, generating electricity or building means to destroy civilization in specifics areas and the people who built it.

    It took us decades to get comfortable with that problem solving with nuclear energy and now we’re challenged again. Political power to the few or energy to the many.

    This study points out a beneficial use for the many. Figure out who we are. A consequence that unintentionally results in political power for the few though is in the answers returned for the quaries. Give Google money to fund the tool and they will give your answer preferential presentation.

    Ying and yang. Both beyond our control.

    While Google isn’t a corporation that makes money off of fake news it inadvertently supports it by enclosing each of us in a silo of our own creation that echoes what we’re thinking and obscures what we’re not.

    I personally think that the benefit of finding the needle in any haystack well worth the complexity of sorting the wheat and the chaff. I can’t say if that’s generally true though but it’s here and we are stuck with the capability for good or bad.

  10. It’s not that humanity is absent from mankind, it’s just that there is so little of it.

  11. When I was working at the international company in northern Indiana a decade ago, one of my younger coworkers (mid-30s then) said that he read that the internet is the anti-christ. I think I remember laughing at him. hmmmm

  12. “While Google isn’t a corporation that makes money off of fake news it inadvertently supports it by enclosing each of us in a silo of our own creation that echoes what we’re thinking and obscures what we’re not.”

    Unless I am misunderstanding you, Pete, Google also offers options to search the sources of the sites so they will/can “enclose us” if we allow it by being too lazy to search further with information from or about the site. A time consuming, tedious process; which reminds me of the Dictionary of Computer Terminology I bought years ago. You look up one word of “computerese” and the definition is given in 3-25 other terms in “computerese”. Example: “cold boot” vs. “warm boot”…”cold boot” simply means to turn on your computer, “warm boot” means to restart from your turned on computer – at times is necessary to get better connection. Why don’t they say so?

  13. I had to chuckle this morning reading about Kathy Allen, D-Utah, running to take the vacant congressional seat of Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Ms Allen may be the loyal opposition but can she get anywhere in Mormon Utah? Cry “religious bigotry” if you will but first ask some Fundamentalist Christians if they think Mormon doctrine is at odds with the Democratic Party Platform.

  14. From the Bible or from Abraham Lincoln, the adage that The Truth Shall Set You Free is now an impossible dream. Although the truth is out there–in good journalism, on the Internet, at the tavern, among our friends, and in the millions of books on the shelves of our libraries–the truth is obscured, buried, by trillions of lies masquerading as truth. Our task has now become one of sorting truths, and that is likely much more difficult than merely finding truth.

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