What are the weirdest questions you've ever Googled? Mine might be (for my latest book): “How many people have ever lived?” “What do people think about just before death?” and “How many bits would it take to resurrect in a virtual reality everyone who ever lived?” (It's 10 to the power of 10123.) Using Google's autocomplete and Keyword Planner tools, U.K.-based Internet company Digitaloft generated a list of what it considers 20 of the craziest searches, including “Am I pregnant?” “Are aliens real?” “Why do men have nipples?” “Is the world flat?” and “Can a man get pregnant?”
This is all very entertaining, but according to economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who worked at Google as a data scientist (he is now an op-ed writer for the New York Times), such searches may act as a “digital truth serum” for deeper and darker thoughts. As he explains in his book Everybody Lies (Dey Street Books, 2017), “In the pre-digital age, people hid their embarrassing thoughts from other people. In the digital age, they still hide them from other people, but not from the internet and in particular sites such as Google and PornHub, which protect their anonymity.” Employing big data research tools “allows us to finally see what people really want and really do, not what they say they want and say they do.”
People may tell pollsters that they are not racist, for example, and polling data do indicate that bigoted attitudes have been in steady decline for decades on such issues as interracial marriage, women's rights and gay marriage, indicating that conservatives today are more socially liberal than liberals were in the 1950s.
Using the Google Trends tool in analyzing the 2008 U.S. presidential election, however, Stephens-Davidowitz concluded that Barack Obama received fewer votes than expected in Democrat strongholds because of still latent racism. For example, he found that 20 percent of searches that included the N-word (hereafter, “n***”) also included the word “jokes” and that on Obama's first election night about one in 100 Google searches with “Obama” in them included “kkk” or “n***(s).”
“In some states, there were more searches for ‘[n***] president’ than ‘first black president,’” he reports—and the highest number of such searches were not predominantly from Southern Republican bastions as one might predict but included upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, industrial Michigan and rural Illinois. This difference between public polls and private thoughts, Stephens-Davidowitz observes, helps to explain Obama's underperformance in regions with a lot of racist searches and partially illuminates the surprise election of Donald Trump.
But before we conclude that the arc of the moral universe is slouching toward Gomorrah, a Google Trends search for “n*** jokes,” “bitch jokes” and “fag jokes” between 2004 and 2017, conducted by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker and reported in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now, shows downward-plummeting lines of frequency of searches. “The curves,” he writes, “suggest that Americans are not just more abashed about confessing to prejudice than they used to be; they privately don't find it as amusing.”
More optimistically, these declines in prejudice may be an underestimate, given that when Google began keeping records of searches in 2004 most Googlers were urban and young, who are known to be less prejudiced and bigoted than rural and older people, who adopted the search technology years later (when the bigoted search lines were in steep decline). Stephens-Davidowitz confirms that such intolerant searches are clustered in regions with older and less educated populations and that compared with national searches, those from retirement neighborhoods are seven times as likely to include “n*** jokes” and 30 times as likely to contain “fag jokes.” Additionally, he found that someone who searches for “n***” is also likely to search for older-generation topics such as “Social Security” and “Frank Sinatra.”
What these data show is that the moral arc may not be bending toward justice as smoothly upward as we would like. But as members of the Silent Generation (born 1925–1945) and Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964) are displaced by Gen Xers (born 1965–1980) and Millennials (born 1981–1996), and as populations continue shifting from rural to urban living, and as postsecondary education levels keep climbing, such prejudices should be on the wane. And the moral sphere will expand toward greater inclusiveness.