A recent Guardian article highlighted that, though we may choose to lie to others, we can’t get a lie past Google. In an indirect way, the article may explain some other recent political phenomena that have had seismic results.
We lie in all sorts of different ways and to a variety of different people, in a host of formats and circumstance. Evidently, we are more willing to be truthful when we are alone and do not feel threatened, such as when we’re online. While phone pollsters may not get an honest reading of our feelings (because we may not want to share our innermost thoughts), we are more likely to be forthcoming when online in a ‘safe’ space.
This may explain the comparative accuracy of online political polling during the 2016 dual surprises that confounded pollsters: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Prospective voters were misleading those who poll and predict electoral outcomes. It seems that people just don’t have any incentive to tell those people the truth. The article points out that,
“The more impersonal the conditions, the more honest people will be. For eliciting truthful answers, internet surveys are better than phone surveys, which are better than in-person surveys. People will admit more if they are alone than if others are in the room with them.”
I followed the US election carefully and noticed that Trump did considerably better in internet polls and in the commentary in general online. Like many others, I dismissed it.
The problem goes beyond just feeling comfortable in one’s space, as we will probably also lie to any survey (whether in-person, on the phone, or online), if the information requested is of a confidential nature. So how can we divine the truth? The Guardian article suggests that big data is the answer. More specifically, Google searches. And why not?
Google searches tick all the boxes. They don’t seem to activate the potential deceiver’s antennae. They’re private, not probing. In short, the ‘respondent’ feels safe. In fact, we may be totally unaware that we’re providing intimate, perhaps embarrassing information – and that’s the key to unlocking secrets and getting at the truth. By virtue of our searches, we reveal aspects of our life revolving around mental illness, sexual preference, abortion, religion, health, and more, most of the time innocently and unwittingly.
Our inclination to be dishonest when we feel threatened by the environment in which we’re being surveyed is highlighted by those who try to determine things like (for example) what percentage of the population is gay. For years, estimates have been vague at best. Now it seems that the tolerance levels of the society where people are being surveyed are influencing the outcomes of those estimates. For example, according to a Gallup survey, the proportion of the population that is gay is almost twice as high in Rhode Island, the state with the highest support for gay marriage, than Mississippi, the state with the lowest support for gay marriage. If someone feels safer about their sexuality then they’re more likely to answer honestly. Thus there could actually be as many or more gay men in Mississippi than Rhode Island.
Our Google searches reveal much more than sexual persuasion or preference. Search data has revealed widespread animosity towards African Americans and followers of Islam. You can read how even a President’s attempt (Obama) to quell the animus against Islam backfired, inspiring greater rage among many users. In short, digital searches, which are purported to reveal truthful information, will show us that the world is worse than we have thought.
However, not all the news is bad. For one, we can learn that we aren’t alone in our fears and phobias – rightly or wrongly. For another, the search info can point out how we can change the angle of approach to topics. For example, after Obama’s speech chastising Americans’ response to Islamic terrorist attacks, which sparked the rage, he changed his tack. Instead of preaching morally about the Islamic injustice, in a later Oval Office speech, he focused on provoking our curiosity about Muslims and appealed to the commonality we share with those of the Muslim faith. After all, they live and work in the same communities.
After the latter speech by Obama, much of the hateful, rage-fuelled fury shown through search data dropped in the hours afterward. This offers hope that big data can be used for good, to shed light on problems so that they might be corrected.
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