Category: Global Affairs

Google search data Islamophobia

Can Google search data help solve Islamophobia?

For decades, social scientists have conducted research using some combination of surveys, census data, focus groups, interviews, and observation techniques. With the exception of covert observation, which brings its own ethical issues, these methods have something in common: the dishonesty of people. These methods are all subject to human lies and therefore unable to paint a reliable picture of society’s true beliefs and darkest fears. In fact, the most objective forms of data are given up willingly, in private, where people are free from the worry of being judged. Short of stealing people’s diaries or tapping their phone calls, what else can researchers do to gather the most objective data possible?

Better than surveys

In our digital era the most obvious answer is also the correct one. But until now, few people have thought to leverage this tool and publicise their findings in such an accessible way and at such a pertinent time. What is the technology we all use to ask questions, seek validation, and search for the most outrageous things? Why of course, it’s Google. Many people would be embarrassed to publicly display their Google search history. I know mine is full of very silly things. But at the same time, these queries are deeply revealing; which is precisely why they strike a nerve. They display some of our deepest secrets. For example, a few years ago I used to get occasional panic attacks. I remember waking up at 3 am in an unfamiliar country, caught in the midst of an attack, gasping for breath. To calm myself, I searched Google for reassurance that it was ‘just’ a panic attack.

Google as ‘truth serum’

People search Google for all manner of things. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (see below for video of his recent RSA talk), the researcher who produced this study, found many searches for terms involving ‘abortions’, ‘closet gays’, ‘penis size’, and ‘breastfeeding of husbands’ (the latter being apparently popular in India). He also found other more sinister patterns, ones suggesting American racism was far more widespread than previously thought. In fact, search data shows the idea of America as a ‘post-racial’ society, much-touted after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, to be quite absurd. Google showed American racism and Islamophobia were thoroughly alive and kicking, even in places where people didn’t publicly admit to holding racist views. They espouse very different opinions in the privacy of their own homes, face-to-face only with Google. It’s Google as ‘truth serum’. Almost ten years later, with Trump at the helm, perhaps America is finally showing its true face.

Tracking Islamophobia in searches

Obama’s address to the nation after the 2015 San Bernardino attack, provides an interesting example of how search data reflects hidden social views. In the speech, he aimed to calm outraged people and restore order to the country. In particular, he wanted to counteract the backlash that Muslim-Americans would surely face. While he was speaking of Muslims as ‘our friends’, ‘neighbours’ and so on, Google search data was telling a different story. After each terrorist attack (and this happens in the UK too) the volume of negative and violent searches about Muslims skyrockets. Islamophobic searches like ‘kill all Muslims’, become alarmingly high.

During most of Obama’s speech, these searches didn’t reduce or even level off. Instead they became even more frequent. This makes sense, because challenging people’s world views acts as an attack on their fundamental identity. In response, most will cling tighter to whatever they believe. But later in his speech, Obama changed tack. He introduced new images: not just of Muslim-Americans as friends and neighbours, who should be respected, but also of ‘Muslim soldiers’, willing to die for America, and ‘Muslim athletes’, representing the country on the world stage.

From ‘terrorists’ to soldiers and athletes

And then, something changed in the data. Islamophobic searches slowed down, to be replaced with searches for ‘Muslim athletes’, and ‘Muslim soldiers’. Something had resonated with the people searching; instead of responding predictably to Obama’s perceived ‘attack’ on their entrenched world views, they had become curious. I believe this happened for two reasons, partly because the idea of Muslims as athletes and soldiers resonated with ‘patriotic’ American audiences. But also because these images perhaps helped to ‘de-otherise’ public perceptions of Muslims. By drawing on resonant all-American themes, Obama associated Muslims with a set of positive images rather than just trying to convince wider America to accept them as a group. In response, albeit temporarily, the volume of Islamophobic searches slowed and included more positive searches.

This is encouraging in some ways, because despite the fleeting nature of this positivity, its presence suggests two important things, 1) that Islamophobia is largely a problem of perceptions, and 2) that the tide can be turned back. Negative views of Muslims have become deeply entrenched over the last three decades. Islamophobia as a public perception is regularly reinforced by mainstream media, by certain think tanks and their ‘experts’, and by reactions to the terrible deeds of ISIS; a group that has hijacked the image of Islam worldwide.

How can this data help us?

Can Google search data offer us the chance to fix some of society’s ills? Its revealing nature shows our darkest fears in a way no survey can ever do. Having this information (anonymous of course) could be used to bring issues into the open and address their root causes. In the case of Islamophobia, analysing Google searches could reveal where the gaps and misperceptions lie in wider society’s understanding of Muslims. It could allow us to categorise the fears, misunderstandings, and false perceptions. This could inform the design of social initiatives targeting specific problems, helping people understand each other better and gain a stronger sense of reality over perception.

Retrospective on loss

“What’s past is prologue.”

 – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

It was a strangely warm winter’s day while reflecting on the cold, dismal year just past. In a year bookended by this city, the enjoyment of being here can’t quite blot out memories of what happened in the middle.

Loss has defined 2016; loss of people, of peace, and of collective sanity. Perching on the brink of the approaching new year brings a sense of trepidation. From my own vantage point (ever-changing as it is), I’ve observed much news of loss. It hasn’t been pretty.

Celebrity deaths have come in a steady stream this year. The most recent, Star Wars legend, writer and activist Carrie Fisher, marks a resounding end to a terrible run that took with it some of the world’s most iconic figures, including Bowie, Cohen and Prince.

There have been other losses too, less famous but equally resonant, like the murder of the principled politician Jo Cox. And we mustn’t forget the lives lost this year in terrorist attacks that now seem frighteningly frequent, from Brussels to Berlin and all over the Middle East.

Along with human loss of all stripes we also witnessed political loss. In June, Britons voted away their privileges of living, working and travelling freely across 28 European nations. Our pound and our passports lost their heft as the people lashed out in one spiteful kick against perceived notions of Brussels and refugees. I cried when I heard news of Brexit.

Soon after, Istanbul was lost; and everything that came with it. But things were much worse for embattled Turkey, which lost peace, calm and its sense of security on that fateful July day of the failed coup. The country may never be the same again.

Globally, we lost the ability to make sense of world events. The toxic fog of ‘fake news’ descended upon us and took over our incoming news channels. This effect had been building up for months, culminating on the day the earth stood still – when Donald Trump took the White House.

The resulting furore rages on. Those of us whose job it is to seek truth feel compromised, hindered and weighed down by grey propaganda at every turn. Bot armies and paid Macedonian trolls are vying to control our perceptions. They are tools of those who wish to shape the future of nations for the worse.

No-one knows what truth looks like anymore. Each new story attracts cycle after cycle of ‘debunking’, until fact and fiction become smeared together in one unholy mass, until all is in doubt and nothing feels right anymore.

No-one knows what the new year will bring. All we can do as individuals is buttress ourselves against the coming storm, building a safe haven of the self. Because the world isn’t fair, and if we can’t rely on ourselves, who can we rely on?

Trust no-one, question everything, and don’t lose yourself.

After Berlin, can Germany resist hate?

In Berlin just before Christmas, twelve people were killed and dozens injured in another terrorist attack.

The attacker drove a truck into a busy Christmas market, targeting shoppers and bystanders, ploughing his hijacked vehicle into the crowds in much the same way as the Bastille Day attack in Nice. ISIS was quick to claim that it inspired the attack.

German authorities believe the attacker is a Tunisian national in his early 20s, according to identity documents found in the truck’s cabin, where the Polish driver was also found shot dead. Police are currently conducting a series of raids as they try to find the attacker.

Although this latest event in Berlin is as bloody and tragic as any other, it is beginning to lose some of its shock value in a year filled with carnage. It’s just another instalment in a series of attacks on European cities that have targeted Brussels, Istanbul (multiple times), Paris, and Nice this year. In response we find the usual banalities.

Politicians tweet ‘thoughts and prayers’, analysts weigh in on TV and in op-eds, while the world expresses sentiments on social media ranging from grief and solidarity to ‘we told you so’, among a range of negative remarks aimed at Islam. Most of these responses ring hollow; they’ve been said so many times already. But the anti-Islam ones are more serious than most, as for Western societies they herald yet another step down a frightening rabbit hole.

The anti-Islam, anti-refugee view, once the preserve of those at the far-right margins, is now making its way into everyday discourse. Ordinary people can’t help but be shocked at the plight of innocent victims like those visiting the market that fateful day. Far-right discourse plays on their shock and encourages their fear to take hold and manifest itself in growing fear and suspicion of the ‘other’, particularly refugees and Muslim immigrants.

But with the frequency of attacks in 2016 in particular, one could argue that ‘propaganda of the deed’ could be losing some of its potency. The West knows that it’s under threat but seems to lack the ability to counter the origins of the problem. Defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq hasn’t helped, as this latest attack in Germany shows.

The troubled worldview of disaffected, frustrated young Muslims in the West can’t very well be addressed with military action in Iraq or Syria. In fact, this only serves to stoke the flames of radicalisation and lead more people to take up arms in support of Syria’s plight. The difference is, they may choose to attack at home where it’s easier to do so.

So if Isis inspired this latest attack what is it hoping to achieve? For starters this could be a reminder that it’s still here and still a credible threat. Despite recent territorial losses in Syria and Iraq the group knows that its influence extends far beyond those battlefields. Understanding its audience as well as Isis does means that the group can still tap into their frustrations and fears, harnessing those to inspire attacks like this latest one in Berlin.

For Angela Merkel this is very bad news. Her pro-refugee policy back in summer 2015, despite its best intentions, meant that Germany perhaps bit off more than it could chew, without a clear plan in place to make sure the new arrivals were properly integrated. As thousands of desperate refugees headed for Germany, the people of overwhelmed towns and cities started to become resentful. As negative incidents emerged, such as the Paris shootings and the Cologne sexual assaults, so the tide of German public sentiment started turning against refugees, equating their very presence with a heightened risk of terrorism.

Events like these are prime opportunities for the far-right to promote its brand of hatred, fear and division. If far-right political proponents time their moves well, their parties can manipulate public opinion and use it to gain political leverage. They already did so successfully in Britain and the US, resulting in Brexit and Trump respectively. France, with the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen, is not far behind.

Merkel’s Germany has been described as the ‘liberal West’s last defender’ in Europe. Although this seems ironic given the country’s 20th century history, it’s a testament to how hard Germany has worked and how far it has come.

Germany has a few advantages that may help protect popular sentiment from far-right influence; firstly, a stronger economy than many of its EU neighbours; secondly, a media landscape that is more restrained and less hysterical than, for example, that of the UK. But Germany’s final, and most important, advantage is that it has already learned serious lessons from history. It has lived through the terrible reality of what widespread xenophobia can bring.

For this to now be undone and for fascism to return would be a travesty, not just for Germany, but for the world. It remains to be seen in the run-up to the next German elections whether the people will give in to the forces that wish to sow division, or instead form their own judgements and proceed with wisdom and clarity.

Update: Since this piece was published, the Berlin market attacker, Anis Amri, has been shot dead by Italian security forces in a shootout in Milan.

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”

― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What exactly is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

Teeth and claws

Cloudy weather allows for clearer thinking, so it is said, while sunshine ‘dulls the mind’ to risk and thoughtfulness’. If that’s truly the case, my thoughts should have been crystal during these last months. But mostly, they are full of constant musings on what a wild place the world has become.

There are four days left until the US election. Media hysteria surrounding the candidates has risen to fever pitch; with tales of deleted emails vying for dominance with those of sexual harassment (can’t think which could be worse…) Old family friends have emerged as die-hard supporters of those who purvey the latter, much to my great dismay.

Meanwhile, a glimmer of light appeared yesterday on this side of the Atlantic, as the UK’s high court ruled that Parliament must vote to trigger Article 50. This ruling is a small victory for those who just months ago watched in dismay as the future of their country was hijacked by the masses voting for false promises. We watched while the pound plummeted. We watched while other EU member states ganged up against us. And we watched while the hard-won British reputation for tolerance openness and pluralism was smashed apart in a matter of days.

On a wider scale, the world is moving in a worrying direction. Driven by fear, people are retreating to the familiar, afraid to interact with the ‘other’ in case something bad happens to them. Refugees are potential suicide bombers; immigrants will steal our jobs. We can witness the rise of Trump’s alt-right in America reflecting the Brexit mentality in Britain, and the Europe-wide rejection of refugees inextricably linked to the rise of ‘acceptable’ far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France. This culture of hate is growing teeth and claws.

In Turkey, the political situation has sunk to new lows with last night’s arrest of members of the elected opposition party HDP, headed by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas. The pro-Kurd HDP supports the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, along with being a vocal advocate for those of women, LGBT and workers. The MPs have been accused (predictably) of crimes ‘relating to terrorist propaganda’, which could mean absolutely anything (or could even be made up). Nevertheless, it sounds a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey.

Social media in Turkey has been blocked, including WhatsApp, the country remains under a state of emergency, and it seems the powers-that-be will stop at nothing in their quest to stamp out any dissent and retain power indefinitely. What’s more, Turkey’s recent invasion of Mosul has drawn the ire of ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, who has urged his followers to wage ‘all-out war’ against Turkey. The future of the country looks grim, to say the least.

But fortunately, not all people move in fearful herds. Examples can still be found of grassroots initiatives that promote tolerance, justice and humanity. The Devon town of Great Torrington responded to a hateful anti-refugee Facebook page by creating its own “Refugees ARE welcome in Devon” page, which has attracted a lot of positive engagement. In a similar vein, but Syrian-run, From Syria with Love is a charity that travels around the UK giving talks on the Syrian situation and encouraging donations in support of refugees. So far, much of its feedback has been positive.

There are many more like this, but the mainstream media prefers to focus on news that holds the requisite shock value, painting a picture of a divided and hateful world. Over the coming weeks and months I shall be keeping my eyes open for examples of people working hard to promote basic humanity over the constant parade of hatred and fear. Through that, perhaps I can retain some modicum of hope.