Internet Searches and Racial Bias

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Are you willing to search for things online that you wouldn’t admit to others?

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According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of a new book entitled Everybody Lies, the answer is “yes.”

Consider, for example, that most people use their computer in isolation. They also type in search queries that they might not ask others. Thus, people’s searches might reveal biases, attitudes, or behaviors that they would be otherwise unwilling to share with others.

With this in mind, Stephens-Davidowitz examined search trends across the US using Google trends. He examined how many times people searched for the N-word, the derogatory term expressed toward African Americans. Through a series of studies, he then examined how these search patterns were associated with other events.

The findings were striking.

First, as expected, people in the Deep South were likely to Google things using the N-word, such as jokes. But, others were, too, including people in West Virginia, parts of Pennsylvania, and parts of New York, among other places.

He also found that the search patterns were predictive of a number of social events. For example, in communities where people Googled something with the N-word, they were less likely to vote for President Obama. In another study, he drew from research showing that community racism negatively affected racial minorities’ health. Stephens-Davidowitz found that N-Word searches in communities were predictive of mortality rates among African Americans.  

Collectively, Stephens-Davidowitz’s findings suggest that what we search for on the Internet, including diversity-related material, is often a good predictor of our other behaviors.