Tuesday, 18 July 2017 07:19

Google's search engine results show the true extent of private prejudices


"Everyone’s a little bit racist,” sing the foul-mouthed muppets in the musical Avenue Q. They might, had they read the extract published yesterday from a new book about Google searches, have added the lyrics: “And lots and lots of people are a lot racist too.”

Cripes, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are makes for glum reading. But it’s glumly compelling. The author’s notion is, basically, that people lie to surveys but they tell the truth to search engines. And that truth isn’t pretty. 

Very few people, for instance, admit to being racist. It’s widely argued that “implicit” or unconscious prejudice among the basically well-meaning is at the root of most discrimination. But Stephens-Davidowitz can show that seven million Americans (or, conceivably, one very busy one) search for a phrase including the n-word every year, with 17 times as many searches for “n***** jokes” as for any other racial jokes. The word is searched as often as “migraine” or “economist”. 

Charmingly, there’s a 30 per cent uptick in those searches each year on Martin Luther King Day. The map of where these searches come from, just as charmingly, correlates closely to  the map of the strongest electoral support for the now President in the Republican primaries. 

There were some dismaying results, too, during President Obama’s well-received speech after the San Bernardino shootings in 2015 calling for calm and tolerance towards Muslims. Did it increase calm and tolerance? Er, no: “searches calling Muslims ‘terrorists’, ‘bad’, ‘violent’ and ‘evil’ doubled during and shortly after the speech”. As Obama denounced the idea of religious tests for refugees, “negative searches about Syrian refugees […] rose 60 per cent, while searches asking how to help Syrian refugees dropped 35 per cent”. In fact, the speech correlated with a threefold rise in searches for “kill Muslims”. 

It’s not just racial or religious prejudice that Google searches can tell us about. “Digital truth serum,” as Stephens-Davidowitz calls them. “Google searches are the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche.” Some things, mind you, may not come as a complete surprise. Men ask Google about their willies more than “their lungs, liver, feet, ears, nose, throat and brain combined”. 

Google funding 'robot journalism' to help produce 30,000 local stories

But complaints from women about men refusing sex come at twice the rate of complaints from men about women refusing sex. And “Is my husband gay?” is asked 10 per cent more often than “Is my husband cheating?”; eight times more often than “an alcoholic?” and 10 times more often than “depressed?” (Which is making me wonder, nervously, whether all this data was gathered from my own ISP.) 

If you gaze for long into an abyss, said Nietzsche, the abyss gazes into you. Likewise, if you ask Google to give you information about the world, you give Google an awful lot of information about yourself. And it shows us to be, well, abysmal. No man, as Mme Cornuel almost said, is a hero to Silicon Valley. 

But it’s not all bad. Stephens-Davidowitz offers grounds for cautious optimism. In our neuroses and anxieties, Google’s giant dataset tells us: you are not alone. It tells us where people need help and how — it can tell epidemiologists where diseases are spreading; and it can help outreach workers identify communities with high numbers of closeted and fearful gay people. And, a most intriguing finding: when President Obama talked about Muslim sportspeople in that speech, the hate-searching dropped for a bit. Distracted by curiosity, people started Googling Muslim athletes. 

So Google searches are a window into boundlessness — and not just of human hatefulness and sex-obsession. They are also a window into the boundlessness of our species’s greatest asset, the asset that may save us: curiosity. On which count I note that if you type “Do mid” into your Google search box, autocomplete will still offer as its first option: “Do midgets have night vision?” There’s hope for this wicked old world.

Ivanka is the lesser of the Trump stupids

Ivanka Trump's critics say she is unqualified to stand in for her father, President Donald Trump (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

If it were not so serious, Donald Trump’s colossal disregard for all the norms of political propriety and human decency would, you have to admit, be as funny as all hell. I mean, the absolute insouciance with which the leader of the free world let his unqualified, unelected 35-year-old daughter Ivanka, pictured, stand in for him at the G20! Between Mrs May and the Chinese President, if you please! Armando Iannucci, genius though he is, would have struggled to script anything quite as hilarious as the last few months in American reality. 

I suppose there is a point that bears making in her defence, though — Ivanka is not noticeably more unqualified to sit at that table than her tangerine-coloured old dad. Plus, she seems to be sane, isn’t likely to start a war, knows how to shake a world leader’s hand properly and never boasted of sexually assaulting  a member of the opposite sex. I’m not quite saying Ivanka should take over as POTUS, but if she did, it certainly wouldn’t make things any worse.

Source: This article was published standard.co.uk By SAM LEITH


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