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The internet’s bigotry problem: how Google searches reveal our dark side

Online data suggests explicit racism is far more widespread than we thought.

When on social media, we like to present the most flattering version of ourselves. But our Google searches reveal our ugliest angles, our darkest thoughts and our greatest fears.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former Google data scientist and the author of Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, has made a career out of analysing what we type into the search engine. He’s interested in our lonely admissions and secret confessions (“I am sad” or “Is it normal to want to kill my family?”); the questions we are too embarrassed to ask one another (such as “Why is my poop green?” – the third most popular question beginning with “why is” on Google); and all the other things that thousands of people type into the blank search box each year: “People are annoying”, “I regret having children”, “I love my girlfriend’s boobs”.

In Everybody Lies, he writes: “Google searches are the most important data set ever collected on the human psyche.” His findings are so intriguing that this lack of humility is almost forgivable. Google searches indeed offer more data than even the most ambitious surveys or scientific studies. Although we tend to lie to ourselves, our friends, our social media followers and opinion pollsters, our private Google searches are a repository of discomforting truths.

Stephens-Davidowitz is unlikely to have been surprised at the eruption of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. Political scientists seeking to explain the US’s persistent racial inequality often focus on subconscious bias, because most white Americans vehemently deny that they are racist.

Yet Google data suggests that explicit racism is far more widespread than answers to phone surveys or social media posts suggest. In some US states, there were more searches for “nigger president” than “first black president” on the night of Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Eight years later, the best predictor of which regions would vote for Trump was the volume of racially charged internet searches.

Disheartening as it is to learn that American society is more racist – and more sexist and more Islamophobic – than many would hope, some positives can be drawn from this grim data cache. It offers hints, for instance, of how best to defeat prejudice. Stephens-Davidowitz’s findings suggest that lecturing bigots doesn’t work – it can simply inflame their anger instead. In the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, Obama delivered a stirring speech urging Americans to remember that “freedom is more powerful than fear”. While he spoke, Google searches for the term “kill all Muslims” tripled.

Provoking curiosity may, however, be a better way to fight hatred. In a subsequent speech, Obama described American Muslims as “our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes and… our men and women in uniform”. For the first time, searches for “Muslim athletes” and “Muslim soldiers” were more common than those for “Muslim terrorists”, “Muslim extremists” or “Muslim refugees”.

The finding aligns with other research into the role that curiosity plays in countering bias. Numerous studies have shown that education, scientific knowledge and self-reflection does not stop people from rejecting new information that contradicts their world-view. Yet research conducted by a team at Yale in 2016 suggested that people who were curious were also much more likely to be open-minded about information that does not reinforce their existing beliefs.

Those concerned by racism and xenophobia might want to consider ways in which teachers and policymakers can foster curious citizens, who are willing to be proved wrong about their prejudices, who are intrigued rather than threatened by difference, and whose interest in the world extends outwards to new cultures and perhaps also downwards, deep into our Google data mine.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move

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Jude Kelly’s Diary: From train travel through 80s Russia to buses around Britain

Our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

It was strange on Friday, heading off from lunch with Misha Glenny, writer of McMafia, and landing in Moscow the same evening. Misha and I spent most of our time reminiscing about his father, the renowned translator and Russian expert Michael Glenny. He and I travelled right across Russia together in 1986 accompanied by the then science editor of Pravda Vladimir Gubarev, the first journalist to set foot in Chernobyl. So great was Gubarev’s horror at what he had uncovered that he exiled himself to his dacha for months and wrote his first play, Sarcophagus, set in Hospital No 1, where all the patients, scientists, firemen, engineers and building contractors reveal to each other the massive corruption and moral culpability that led to the devastating event and their own inevitable deaths.

It was early glasnost days and all could be said, nothing was censored. The play caused shock waves right across the Soviet system and I’d been asked to direct it by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I stood in the office of the literary department in Stratford open-mouthed as Michael Glenny’s vivid translation came rolling off the fax machine, revealing the unbearable mix of human stupidity and venal desire that placed the world in such danger.

This led to our train journeys, criss-crossing the snowy landscape, to research the piece, as Michael and Vladimir gave me a crash course in Russian history while smuggling vodka into railway carriages to cope with that short-lived and doomed alcohol ban that was one initiative of perestroika. I returned to direct the play, which I’m proud to say was nominated for an Olivier award. But one thing I think we’ve all learned, and as Misha illustrated over lunch, is that our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now
as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

Thawing relations

I was in Russia by invitation of the British Council, giving speeches to artists and cultural leaders about the power of culture to help us build the necessary shared understandings and beliefs. Earnest conversations but also jokes, enthusiasm, great food and no shortage of vodka reinforces that people are very different from political states.

I hate cold weather, but I went almost straight from Russia to Ottawa. Minus ten degrees. Then Banff – minus 15! The trip was partly driven by conversations with Canadian artists about climate change. The global Earth Summit happens in 2020: governments are gathering to review environmental policy and I’d been approached to curate an international festival bringing together many of the extraordinary artists and scientists working in the field. We’d met many of them during our investigation last year of the Nordic regions for Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters festival. Canada has equally powerful thinkers: these conversations are no longer of “fringe” interest. As part of my research, in August I’ll travel to the Arctic region to meet up with artists there. More cold! Brrr!

Coaching by coach

Yesterday, I was in my hometown of Liverpool for a meeting about a new British charity that Richard Collier-Keywood and I have co-founded called Drivers for Change. Me, arts; him, business. It’s directly inspired by an Indian charity, Jagriti Yatra, that takes 400 18- to 26-year-olds on a train journey around their own country looking at social enterprise projects and giving them the knowledge and skills to return to their own communities and make change happen.

I went for several years, supporting these enthusiastic millennials. But although I loved seeing what was being done in Bangalore or Thilonia, I was struck by the knowledge that back home in Sunderland, Port Talbot or Weston-super-Mare there are brilliant examples of change to learn from, and huge problems that need innovative approaches and courage to tackle. This June, we’re inviting 100 young recruits (80 British and 20 from overseas) from all backgrounds to travel through the UK, stopping in nine towns and cities to learn from and inspire others. It launches in Liverpool on 22 June during the International Business Festival, and although it’s buses and not a romantic locomotive, we have high hopes that it will produce a cohort whose actions and energy will make a real difference.

Watching the love tug

We live beside the canal in Shoreditch, east London, and have noticed a major escalation in epic silliness. At least once a week through December and January, groups of people immersed in hot water in a large plastic blow-up bath – known as the “Love Tug” – have floated past, drinking champagne. As I write, with the faux chimney of the tug steaming away and bursts of immodest laughter tinkling across the water, one group has just drifted under our windows. Wearing nautical hats and little else, many look like stag or hen dos. What a barmy start to married life.

Goodbye Southbank, hello world

Women of the World Festival (WOW) is in Kathmandu this weekend for its second year there – the youngest, poorest democracy with some of the most powerful women and girl campaigners you could ever meet. I have just announced that after 12 years, I’ll be leaving the Southbank Centre to build WOW into a wider global movement. Over eight years we’ve developed these festivals, which speak with candour about every aspect of women’s lives in 30 places, over five continents. It’s proved a hugely compelling project for me to devote more time to.

This month’s celebrations of women’s achievements in getting voting rights was gratifying but WOW aims to celebrate girls and women all year round. Celebration creates optimism, and optimism gives us the stamina to face up to the tough stuff and keep going. You have to build fun into life wherever possible… For me, it’s essential. 

WOW Women of the World festival will be held at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 7-11 March

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist