What Have Italians Been Searching on Google During the 2018 General Election Campaign?

A few weeks ago, I complied some data from Google Trends on the keywords and topics Italians had searched during the first three weeks of the general election campaign. Now that the campaign is drawing to a close, it is time to go back to the data and see what, if anything, has changed.

Before we do that, let me repeat the caveats on using these data I discussed in the first post:

  1. Not all citizens or voters are internet users (in Italy, only about 65% are).
  2. Searching for something on Google cannot be taken as a simple indication of preference, or intention to act upon that preference. It is more an indication of curiosity.
  3. Those who act upon that curiosity and search for information on Google may not be representative of the whole group of internet users who share that curiosity.
  4. Google’s affordances (such as suggestions and related results) may change the incentives to perform certain searches.
  5. Working with data generated by users’ free searches mean we have to creatively identify search terms that we believe correctly represent a certain object of interest, and that is no easy task.

Still interested? Great.

The data I retrieved from Google Trends is publicly accessible. It captures searches conducted in Italy from January 7th, the first business day after the Christmas holiday, until February 28th, 2018. By clicking on the charts below, you can access Google Trends and tweak those searches in any way you like. Data are normalized from 0-100, where 100 represents the temporal unit when any of the search terms under comparison in a given chart reached its peak in the period of analysis. Given how Google Trends works, there is no way to know precisely the real numbers of searches these values correspond to. Comparisons can be made within the charts presented below, but not across them, as the 0-100 ranges represent different quantities of searches depending on the keywords and topics being compared.

Party Leaders

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Overall, searches for the main party leaders have grown as election day neared, signaling increased interest among voters. Center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi still leads the pack, as he has for all the campaign. In the final stretch, populist right leader Matteo Salvini, who is allied with Berlusconi, and Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio are catching up. The center-left Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi has struggled to attract comparable levels of attention. In the final weeks of the campaign, interest has grown for Emma Bonino, leader of a pro-European integration party that is allied with the Democratic Party. The leader of the new left-wing electoral cartel Free and Equal (“Liberi e Uguali”) and President of the Senate, Pietro Grasso, has been the target of the fewest searches. If we average search volumes throughout all the campaign, the most searched leaders are from the center-right coalition, the Five Star Movement is in close contention, and the least searched leaders are from the progressive camp.

Parties

The scenario looks less politically lopsided if we compare searches for the main political parties. The Five Star Movement is by far the most searched-for party, followed at some distance by the Democratic Party, interest in which peaked when the party announced its candidate lists at the end of January. The two main center-right parties were much less searched for and, just as its leader, Liberi e Uguali was by far the least searched party. Given how common it is to Google anything we do not know about these days, it is puzzling that a new party that polls credit with more than 5% of the popular vote has failed to attract a sizable volume of searches for itself and its leader.

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Similar to what I had noted in my previous post, when we compare searches for parties and leaders, Berlusconi is much more searched than his party, Forza Italia, as is Salvini compared with Lega Nord. By contrast, Di Maio is less searched than the Five Star Movement. Searches for Renzi track those for the Democratic Party pretty closely, and exceed searches for current Prime Minister and Democratic Party member Paolo Gentiloni.

Issues and Proposals

When it comes to the policies and proposals Italians Googled, comparisons are difficult because many issues have been discussed in the campaign, but I have chosen six that seem to me to have been the most relevant:

  • immigration;
  • the flat tax, proposed by the center-right coalition;
  • the law Fornero that reformed (and in many cases restricted access to) pensions, which all the parties apart from the Democratic Party propose to change or abolish;
  • the 80 Euro monthly fiscal bonus that the Renzi government granted to lower-salaried workers, and that the Democratic Party now proposes to extend to other categories of beneficiaries;
  • the property tax (“patrimoniale”) that Liberi e Uguali proposes to introduce;
  • and, alas, Fascism, as the campaign has been marred by many episodes of violence, including a drive-by shooting by a former Lega Nord candidate who calls himself a Fascist and injured seven African migrants in Macerata, as well as various clashes between far-right and anti-Fascist groups.

Because the daily fluctuations in search volumes are larger for these searches than for those on leaders and parties, to simplify the picture I calculated weekly averages. As a result, the maximum value is no longer 100, which is the maximum daily volume as returned by Google, but close to 80.

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As the figure shows, the flat tax has been the most searched issue in the final stretch of the campaign. Immigration has also been a constant presence, with the pensions law trailing closely. Together, these issues suggest the center-right agenda has attracted most Google searches. The key proposals from the center-left and left register substantially lower interest, as their leaders did. (The Democratic Party leader had proposed to abolish the license fee for the public service broadcaster in January, but the official party manifesto only talks about “reforming” it. A notable peak in Google searches for the license fee was recorded on February 19, when the government issued a decree that exonerated low-income over-75s from paying it. Liberi e Uguali proposed to abolish university tuition fees at the beginning of the campaign, but this issue generated even fewer searches than the property tax.)

Finally, searches for Fascism achieved a sizable volume, which grew during the campaign and especially after the Macerata shootings. In general, though, searches for Fascism in Italy exhibit a seasonal pattern, as they tend to grow each year between April (when commemorations celebrating the fall of the Fascist regime take place) and June-July (when high school final exams take place and many students flock to Google in search of potential topics and answers on one of the cornerstones of the country’s history). From 2004 to this day, however, the yearly peaks have tended to yield lower volumes year after year. Interestingly, however, searches for “Fascism” and “Mussolini” are higher this year than they were at the same point one year ago. 

Politics and Everyday Life

Finally, and similar to my previous post on the subject, it is always instructive to compare searches for political and campaign terms to searches related to people’s everyday lives and popular culture. When we plot keyword searches for Berlusconi against searches for porn, the weather, Sanremo (a popular televised music festival broadcast every year in February), and the national lottery, all the nonpolitical search terms are much more popular than the most popular political keyword.

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In particular, Italians seem to be understandably worried about the weather. Which may, indeed, have important repercussions on who gets to turn out on the fourth of March.

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