One academic believes that Google is the most valuable data set on our modern psyche. While we say one thing, our Google history says another.
A few days ago, I read a very disturbing book. Especially in these troubled times of Brexit and Trumpinalia, it kept me awake for a long, long time. It was written by a fairly geeky American scientist and journo called Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and is about Google. Yes, no, not boring. It has nothing to do with the company, or with how bad the Internet is, or anything like that. It is about us. Who we are, what we think, what we are afraid of, what we love and especially, what we hate. As Stephens-Davidowitz writes: we lie everywhere. If somebody asks us a question, we give the answer we think they want to hear. Or if we are playful or annoyed, we say what we think will piss them off. But whatever we do, we lie. Only when we are alone with our laptop do we tell the truth. Our confessional is Google. We ask questions, tell it things. And what we say and ask says something about who we are. In fact, it makes Google a truth serum and the world’s greatest data set on the human psyche, Stephens-Davidowitz claims.
And that is a little scary. First of all, because we—or, in this case, the Americans (though how different from them are we really?)—are much more racist than we let on. Let’s look at some information. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, opinion polls said that Americans really didn’t care about the colour of his skin. They had elected him, they said, because he was the best man for the job. From the polls, the world started to believe that America had come a long way, that racism was on its last legs. But on that same night, 1 in 100 people who searched Google for “Obama” also typed in one of the worst words in the English language: “nigger”. Or, on number two: KKK, the abbreviation for the Ku Klux Klan. In some states, there were more searches for “nigger president” than “black president”. 1 in 100 doesn’t seem a lot, but it still involved millions of people.
This number actually grew over time. And it wasn’t just “nigger” that got a work-out online. It was “kill Muslims” too, and “evil Jews”, “stupid Mexicans”, “ugly Asians” and “selfish gays”. In fact, the more Obama tried to appeal to our better angels in a violent world, the more he called for kindness and understanding, the more the numbers went up. In December 2015, there was a shooting in San Bernardino, where a married couple shot and killed 14 people and injured 22. They were US-born Palestinians, and the target was the husband’s workplace, but because of their “Muslim-sounding” names, the amount of people who put “death to Muslims” on Google went through the roof. Understandable, probably, right? Then what about this? The day after the shooting, Obama gave a speech calming the waters. It was vintage-Obama: soaring, beautifully-worded and about civics and how we were all part of the same world. Even during his address, the people typing in the combinations “Muslims” and “terrorist”, “bad”, “violent” or “evil” doubled. Negative searches on Syrian refugees, who had nothing to do with it, rose by 60%. And the tag “kill Muslims” tripled.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was just writing his PhD on the Google data, but nobody wanted to publish it. They simply didn’t believe that America was this racist. And they especially didn’t want to acknowledge his conclusion, which was that “It revealed a nasty, scary and widespread rage that was waiting for a candidate to give voice to it”. The problem was, the researcher said, that it was Obama who had led to a surge in the white nationalist movement. Trump didn’t create the wave of viciousness, he just rode it. And despite what everybody said when the Trumpster was finally elected—that is was about unemployment, religion, people feeling overlooked by politicians—his election was really only about one thing: racism. The example of a capable, powerful black man in the White House had not turned the country away from prejudice and stereotypes, it had made them worse.
So what do we do now? Do we steer clear from good men and women in politics, because they incite hatred in more people than we had hoped? Is it impossible now to believe that change is achievable, that we are capable of progress and kindness?
Frankly, I want to conclude something else. I want to believe that what we ask Google is to soothe our fears. Here, look at some other data: for every man who asks questions about his brain, there are 100 who ask about their penis. Question 1: how can I make it bigger? Question 2: is it shrinking? When we’ve got kids, we ask Google if our son is gifted, while we also want to know if our daughter is overweight. Yes, I know, not subtle, but obviously at the top of our worries-list. The biggest fear for women? Does my vagina smell? For Brits? Will it stop raining one day? See what I mean? We don’t really ask Google anything, we just tell it how we feel. That is, of course, sad and disturbing in its own right. We are lonely, all of us, and bear our soul to a machine. “Google, do you love me?”
For more information:
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz — Everybody Lies: What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (New York, Bloomsbury, 2017)