Brexitators All Googling "What's an EU" at Midnight Post-Vote? I Call BS on this Story: Let Me Count the Ways.
Leading mainstream news outlets, even The Washington Post, have taken a couple tweets about fleeting Google Trends results and stretched them into full-length articles, and probably a canonical chapter in the first draft of the history of the Brexit. One tweet reads, "+250% spike in "what happens if we leave the EU" in the past hour", followed by a dead link. Another is, "'What is the EU?' is the second top UK question on the EU since the #EURefResults were officially announced" -- with a graphic of the top five google question searches about the EU:
I call BS, to an extent. Though it's certainly an entertaining dig at the Britons, and it's nice to hear a new & intelligent line of attack instead of the tired old completely groundless elitism. But while this lie flies around the world wide web in a thousand tongues, I've been helping the creaky old truth to struggle into its boots, get properly equipped to repel every possible fallacy it may meet and to carefully spare and cherish any truths hidden among the rubbish, and head off in pursuit.
Here's what these articles don't tell us:
- Were the absolute numbers of these Midnight Googlers enough to mean anything? Google sometimes shows you a graph of the number of searches, but even there, they leave off the actual numbers or any scale to measure them by.
- How do the numbers compare to ALL midnight googling subjects? These are just the top question searches about the EU.
- How many of them were actually Leave voters? Remain Voters? Non-Voters?
- And how does the absolute number of midnight "Whatzit" Googlers compare to all the searches for the same info in the YEARS leading up to the vote? Isn't that the exact comparison that all these articles are trying to make?
- How many people were not counted because they were instead googling the now far more relevant alternatives to the EU, such as EFTA? Or older, tamer models such as the EEC? That's what I was googling at the time.
- How many people google questions instead of one or two key terms? The questions make for a better story, a more entertaining package for Google's self-promotion, but aren't word or phrase searches much more common and thus more relevant?
- Why should people be governed by the EU if they don't even know what it is?
- Can you say "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"? How about "informed consent"?
- Can the Queen vote? Just wondering.
Rational explanations for the "spike" and whatever the actual numbers may be:
- Most voters knew SOMETHING about the EU -- they've been living under it for 22 years -- so they may have figured they knew enough to make up their minds on the initial in-out question.
- But after that, there are a lot of details that are only immediately relevant now that they have to find a way to leave and decide what to do instead, but which wouldn't necessarily have made a difference in the overall decision to stay or go.
- "Stay" voters didn't necessarily need to do any research before the vote. If you vote to keep things as they are, you already know how they are, insofar as they affect your life. Only now do they have to figure out how they're going to get out and where they're going to go.
- Surely some of the Googlers didn't vote, but now realize that (a) there's something happening here, (b) what it is ain't exactly clear, it may affect them, and they need to form opinions on what exactly the UK should do as it withdraws from, and partly replaces, the EU.
- These morning-after Googlers actually were relatively proactive. Most secessionists -- from federations, contracts, gangs, cults, CD-of-the-month-clubs, etc. -- only find out at the end the exact nature of the group they're trying to leave. And the nature of those entities often changes, or is defined, only in the process of trying to secede. Just ask the former habitués of the Delian League, the Confederate States of America, the USSR, Yugoslavia, the Hotel California, or Scientology. Here's what they'll tell you:
"Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war's beginning, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjection ... poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese, while Athens found itself completely devastated, and never regained its pre-war prosperity. The ... conflict between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, each of which supported friendly political factions within other states, made civil war a common occurrence in the Greek world. Greek warfare, meanwhile, originally a limited and formalized form of conflict, was transformed into an all-out struggle between city-states, complete with atrocities on a large scale. Shattering religious and cultural taboos, devastating vast swathes of countryside, and destroying whole cities, the Peloponnesian War marked the dramatic end to the fifth century BC and the golden age of Greece." (Wikipedia: Peloponnesian War)
My research did turn up other fun stuff, though:
- Not to be outdone, American googlers at that time were googling "What party is Hillary Clinton In?" -- the #2 Googled question about Hillary from roughly noon Thursday to noon Friday. I hope they find the party.
- Germans' top question about Brexit was "Was ist Brexit?".
- In Birmingham (England), the #3 what if question was "What if the EU referendum is a draw"? Why were so many Birminghamburglars worrying, or desperately hopeful, about the possibility that 33 million voters could split exactly evenly? (To be fair, it was also #3 in London and #2 UK-wide, but when ridiculing and name-calling it's better to single out an obscure, relatively small group.) Birmingham's top 5 post-vote questions about the referendum included "What is Brexit?", "What is the EU referendum?" and "Who can vote in the EU referendum?" Again, how do they even have high enough absolute numbers of these people to rank them? (Also in the top 5 in London and Scotland.)
- Rich McCormick, in The Verge, called Boris Johnson "a man who looks like a haunted brush and who once got stuck on a zipline", and Nigel Farage "the only British person to ever look uncomfortable holding a pint of beer". Then again my daughter, the soul of agility if not grace, once got stuck on a zipline because she was so light that when she leveled out on the final approach to the landing pad, she lost momentum too quickly. So, again, I say, your information does not mean what you think it means!
UPDATE: Other blogs addressed some of the same points:
2. Remy Smith reports that you can use Google AdWords Keyword Planner to find out the absolute numbers of people searching for a term, and here's what he found out about the "what's the EU" searches" --
In the month before the Brexit vote, 8,100 Britons googled “what is the eu.” That’s around 261 a day. Google Trends showed a huge spike in searches for that term the day after the referendum; assuming searches for the term tripled, that’s still fewer than 1,000 individuals googling “what is the eu” in response to the “Leave” victory. Hardly a sign of voters being uninformed.
That is, 8,100 googled it in the month leading up to it, an average of 261 a day. Not even counting all those who googled it earlier than that. And then the day after, if we believe the headline about a ">250%" spike, then over 261 X 3.5 people -- 914 people or a few more -- googled it.