The internet has become a breeding ground for polarizing opinions, but it’s hard to tell just how much visible internet opinions reflect society’s actual beliefs. It’s sometimes said that for every person who says something online, there’s ten more who think the same thing but don’t say it — but on the other hand, it’s also said that the internet is ruled by a small, vocal minority.
When it comes to police reform, however, it seems the internet outrage is representative of the broader consensus in the US.
“The US is at an acute historical juncture with record interest in police reforms sweeping the entire nation.” said Dr. Benjamin Althouse, Principal Scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling and study co-author. “While people are taking to the streets in protest, many more are they seeking reforms online.”
The starting point for policy-making is listening to the public. But while a part of the public voice is heard through protests and surveys, many others are never heard. So how do you reach them? According to a new study, internet searches might be a way to do so.
It’s not the first time something like this has been attempted. Previously, the same team used internet searches to track influenza, identify suicide ideation, and discover the rise in acute anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the latest effort, the team monitored all Google searches in the US from January 1 through July 5, 2020 that mentioned “police” and “reform(s)” as an indicator of general interest in the topic. They also monitored searches that suggested what type of reforms people would be interested in, looking for searches that included words like “immunity”, “union(s)”, “training”, or “militarization” — all of which turned out to be a significant part of the national conversation.
The team then looked how the search volumes changed after the killing of Mr. George Floyd, an event that sparked widespread protests and outrage.
“Discussing political opinions openly in this polarized landscape is not something anyone is eager to do,” said Dr. John W. Ayers, Co-Founder of the Center for Data Driven Health at UC San Diego, and lead author. “Instead when it comes to controversial issues like police reform you’re far more likely to stay mum and search online about what you may be thinking. By examining internet searches decision-makers can discover what issues and policies resonate with the public.”
The researchers found that searches for “police” and “unions” grew by 450%, while “training” grew by 480%, “immunity” by 5,300% and “militarization” by 3,400%. This translates into about 1,220,000 total police-centered searches for “union(s)”, 820,000 for “training”, 360,000 for “immunity,” and 72,000 for “militarization.” It’s noteworthy that while some searches exhibited the biggest growth, their overall search volume was still lower.
The searches varied by state. According to the study, 33 states were most interested in “police training“, while only 2 searched more for police “immunity”. No state had police “militarization” as the dominant search among the analyzed topics.
“These differences highlight how states have varying needs,” said Dr. Adam Poliak, a Roman Family Faculty Fellow at Barnard College, and study co-author. “Local policy makers do not need to wait for national leaders, they can use state specific trends to find the types of reforms that are best suited to their constituents’ needs.”
Ultimately, the researchers interpret the searches as a call for action. They don’t advocate any particular policy — it’s just that there is a growing discontent among the population, and policymakers would be wise to listen.
The potential value of the use of search histories is substantial, the team concludes.
“Monitoring internet searches gives us a more robust picture of public interest – we can capture more voices, in their own words, and in near real-time engendering more democratic policymaking,” notes Dr. Alicia Nobles, Co-Founder of the Center for Data Driven Health
The study has been published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.