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.