Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit Voters Were Not Actually Googling "What is the EU?" After They Voted...

The day after the historic "Brexit" vote, where British citizens voted in a public referendum to leave the European Union, a headline from the Washington Post circulated wildly on social media:  "The British Are Frantically Googling What the E.U. Is, Hours After Voting To Leave It".

This was used to ridicule the validity of the results, insinuating that British voters had no idea what they were even voting for or against.  However, the headline is completely disingenuous.

Here's why.  The Washington Post reporter used Google Trends as the source of his information, and noted that the number of searches for the phrase "What happens if we leave the EU" had more than tripled in the hours after polls had closed.  But Google Trends reports search numbers in relative terms and within the date range and context of other trends.

So, for example, the "250% spike" in searches for the E.U. "in the past hour" only means that the number of searches more than tripled relative to the number of searches in the previous hours.  More importantly, it says absolutely nothing about the total number of searches actually made.

What this means is that a very small number of people conducting their searches can lead to Google Trends (or, more accurately, a journalist using Google Trends) completely misrepresenting how many people are doing those searches.  For instance, if 10 people had searched that phrase in the previous hour, and now 25 people searched that phrase in the current hour, then Google Trends would note that it was a 250% increase.  Although, clearly, 25 people hardly represent the entire U.K. with its tens of millions of people.

And, in fact, this is what happened the other night.  As Remy Smith uncovered, in the month leading up to the vote, that phrase was receiving about 261 searches per day.  Even after tripling, that still means that fewer than 1,000 individuals actually googled “What is the EU” in response to the “Leave” victory. And that is hardly enough to conclude that large swaths of the population were generally uninformed.

As if any more context were needed, consider that more people googled "Game of Thrones" that night more than "What is the EU?".  By a lot.