How can we use Google Trends to map information flows in election campaigns? Andrew Hoskins (University of Glasgow), Sarah Oates (University of Maryland, College Park), Dounia Mahlouly (King’s College, London), and I addressed this question in a recently published book chapter titled: “Mapping the Search Agenda: A Citizen-Centric Approach to Electoral Information Flows.” The chapter is included in the volume (Mis)understanding Political Participation: Digital Practices, New Forms of Participation, and the Renewal of Democracy, which is edited by Jeffrey Wimmer, Cornelia Wallner, Reiner Winter, and Karoline Oelsner, and published by Routledge.
This chapter builds on a previous article and applies a new methodology that uses Google Trends data to map key information demand trends in elections in the U.S., UK, and Italy, comparing Internet search trends to the salience of key figures and issues in the news media in each country. Findings for the Italian case (which explores the 2013 general election) are particularly relevant in light of the upcoming Italian election on March 4, 2018. Italian voters demonstrated a particular inclination to looking for information about anti-establishment leaders online by going directly to websites and social media accounts run by parties and other movements, instead of the websites of established news organizations. In light of this, the chapter reflects on how low levels of trust in traditional news outlets boost the relevance of the Internet as a source of alternative news and augment opportunities for political groups, particularly anti-establishment ones, to control the agenda and steer public debate.
Earlier this month, the journal Information, Communication & Society published the paper “The Google Voter: Search Engines and Elections in the New Media Ecology,” of which I am the lead author. This article, which can be accessed freely on the journal’s website, discusses some of the main research findings from the VoterEcology project, on which I collaborated with Profs. Andrew Hoskins (University of Glasgow) and Sarah Oates (University of Maryland, College Park), as well as Dr. Dounia Mahlouly (King’s College, London). The paper fills an important gap in our understanding of contemporary information-gathering practices and media environments that surround elections, focusing on the use of search engines by voters in the U.S. and the UK. While search engines remain the primary channel for citizens in these and other democratic countries to engage with election-related information online, there is a dearth of research about the implications of this practice. This paper combines Google Trends data with the analysis of news media coverage to shed light on the opportunities and drawbacks generated by search engine use in elections and reflects on the need to develop innovative methodologies capable of exploring the new media ecologies that are emerging from the interaction of novel and more established forms of media.
I recently presented on behalf of the VoterEcology project team at a knowledge-transfer event organised as part of the Google Data Analytics Social Science Research programme. Here we talked with Google and ESRC representatives about the challenges and opportunities involved in using Google Trends for social science research, as well as ideas for further work in this area. Given the relevance of internet search trends for political communication scholarship and practice, we thought it would be useful to share the report we prepared for this event on the project’s website. This aims to be as jargon-free (in and of itself an accomplishment for a bunch of academic people!) and user-friendly as possible, and includes examples from all the four country case studies explored in the research (the U.S., the UK, Italy and Egypt).
My paper on using Google Trends in academic research is out – thank you to the First Monday team for their super-quick copy-edit efforts. Here is the abstract, you can access the full paper (open access) by clicking here.
Search Engines: From Social Science Objects to Academic Inquiry Tools – by Filippo Trevisan – First Monday, 19(11)
This paper discusses the challenges and opportunities involved in incorporating publicly available search engine data in scholarly research. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have started to include tools such as Google Trends (http://google.com/trends) in their work. However, a central ‘search engine’ field of inquiry has yet to emerge. Rather, the use of search engine data to address social research questions is spread across many disciplines, which makes search valuable across fields but not critical to any one particular area. In an effort to stimulate a comprehensive debate on these issues, this paper reviews the work of pioneering scholars who devised inventive — if experimental — ways of interpreting data generated through search engine accessory applications and makes the point that search engines should be regarded not only as central objects of research, but also as fundamental tools for broader social inquiry. Specific concerns linked to this methodological shift are identified and discussed, including: the relationship with other, more established social research methods; doubts over the representativeness of search engine data; the need to contextualize publicly available search engine data with other types of evidence; and the limited granularity afforded to researchers by tools such as Google Trends. The paper concludes by reflecting on the combination of search engine data with other forms of inquiry as an example of arguably inelegant yet innovative and effective ‘kludgy’ design (Karpf, 2012).
The paper that I presented at the 12th APSA Political Communication pre-conference on the 27th of August in Washington, DC together with Dounia Mahlouly is now available on the website of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Click here to download a copy (password protected – pre-conference attendees only). This is part of my Voter Ecology project on search engines and elections in the UK, the U.S., Italy and Egypt.
The paper I proposed for the 2014 American Political Science Association’s Political Communication Section Pre-Conference was accepted as part of a panel on methodological innovation in political communication research put together by Laura Roselle of Elon University. This work discusses the methodology that myself and colleagues at the University of Glasgow and the University of Maryland devised in order to compare online search trends in elections to relevant news coverage on ‘traditional’ media outlets as part of the on-going Voter Ecology project. My presentation will touch upon all the case studies involved in the project (the U.S., the UK, Italy and Egypt) and provide a detailed overview of the different roles performed by search engines in different electoral contexts. I look forward to being back in Washington, DC for this conference, having spent several months there in 2011 doing fieldwork for my PhD. The pre-conference will take place on Wednesday Aug. 27th at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. The programme can be found here.
While I pack to leave for freezing (!) Toronto, you can now download a free copy of the paper that Paul Reilly (University of Leicester) and I are going to be presenting at the 2014 International Studies Association’s (ISA) Annual Meeting. This is a piece of work that uses freely available online application Google Trends to gain new insights into the rise of anti-political establishment parties in Europe, focusing in particular on the case of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Click here to access the paper (ISA login required). If you’re at ISA, please come say hi – Paul and I will present our work on Saturday 29th March, 1:45pm in the MacDonald Room at the Hilton Hotel and I am likely to be at other ICOMM events the rest of the time. If you’re not in Toronto but still have some interesting thoughts about the paper or my research more generally, feel free to email or reach me on Twitter.
It’s almost time for a Christmas break, but the New Year is already looking busy with two talks to which I am looking forward scheduled for January 2014. Both these presentations will focus on the preliminary results and methodological challenges that have emerged from the Voter Ecology Project and take place at:
The Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association’s (MeCCSA) Annual Conference at Bournemouth University (8th-10th January);
The CEELBAS workshop on Citizen Media in Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Arab World at the University of Manchester (27th-28th January, together with the brilliant Dounia Mahlouly).
More details about these talks including room details, times and abstracts to follow soon. Watch this space!
I will be talking about the Voter Ecology Project at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park on Wednesday Nov. 20th, 2pm. My presentation is entitled “No Laughing Matter: Political Gaffes and Online Information Search in Election Campaigns” and will discuss how publicly available search engine data can help journalists, campaigners, and researchers alike to reach beyond appearances in considering patterns of information consumptions in times of elections. I look forward to discussing this work and how online media are transforming political reporting more generally with students and faculty at the cutting edge of journalism scholarship. The event will take place in Room 1109, Knight Hall.