Culture Magazine

Net Buzz and Hate Crimes

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Hate crimes may seem chaotic and unpredictable, a consequence of random neurons that happen to fire in the brains of a few angry young men. But we can explain some of the rise and fall of anti-Muslim hate crimes just based on what people are Googling about Muslims.

The frightening thing is this: If our model is right, Islamophobia and thus anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently higher than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Although it will take awhile for the F.B.I. to collect and analyze the data before we know whether anti-Muslim hate crimes are in fact rising spectacularly now, Islamophobic searches in the United States were 10 times higher the week after the Paris attacks than the week before. They have been elevated since then and rose again after the San Bernardino attack.

According to our model, when all the data is analyzed by the F.B.I., there will have been more than 200 anti-Muslim attacks in 2015, making it the worst year since 2001.

We often think of Google as a source from which we seek information directly, on topics like the weather, who won last night's game or how to make apple pie. But sometimes we type our uncensored thoughts into Google, without much hope that Google will be able to help us. The search window can serve as a kind of confessional.

There are thousands of searches every year, for example, for "I hate my boss," "people are annoying" and "I am drunk." Google searches expressing moods, rather than looking for information, represent a tiny sample of everyone who is actually thinking those thoughts.

"Public polls, properly done, describe what a representative sample of Americans believe and feel about an issue," Paul Sniderman, a political scientist at Stanford, explained in an email. "Google searches answer a different question: What do people excited enough by an issue to comment on it think and believe about it? The answer to this question, just because it is unrepresentative of the public as a whole, may be a better bet to predict hate crimes."

Searches for information about Islam and Muslims did rise after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Yet they rose far less than searches for hate did. "Who is Muhammad?" "what do Muslims believe?" and "what does the Quran say?" for instance, were no match for intolerance. In the days following the San Bernardino attacks, for every American concerned with "Islamophobia," another was searching for "kill Muslims." While hate searches were about 20 percent of all top searches about Muslims before the attack, more than half of all search volume about Muslims became hateful in the hours that followed it.

It is not just that hatred against Muslims is extremely high today. It's that it's exceptional compared with prejudice against every other group in the United States. [...]

Before the Paris attacks, 60 percent of Americans' searches that took an obvious view of Syrian refugees saw them positively, asking how they could "help," "volunteer" or "aid." The other 40 percent were negative and mostly expressed skepticism about security. After Paris, however, the share of people opposed to refugees rose to 80 percent.

Mr. Obama also said, "It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country." But negative searches about Syrian refugees rose 60 percent. Searches asking how to help Syrian refugees dropped 35 percent. The president asked us to "not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear." But searches for "kill Muslims" tripled during his speech.

There was one line, however, that did trigger the type of response Mr. Obama might have wanted. He said, "Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes and yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defense of our country."

After this line, for the first time in more than a year, the top Googled noun after "Muslim" was not "terrorists," "extremists" or "refugees." It was "athletes," followed by "soldiers." And, in fact, "athletes" kept the top spot for a full day afterward.

The article has some very interesting graphics depicting the frequency of google searches on "Muslim terrorists", "Muslim soldiers", and "Muslim athletes", starting the day of the attack and running through the President's speech. Searches on "Muslim athletes" were few and far between prior to the speech but increased dramatically after it.

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