Italians will go to the polls on 4 March, amid great uncertainty and a fragmented party landscape. One among many ways to keep tabs on the campaign is to track what they have been searching for on Google. Google has a near monopoly, accounting for more than 90% of all the searches made by internet users worldwide. According to recent data from Edelman, search engines are now the most trusted source of information, with 64% claiming to have some confidence in them. This is higher than traditional media, online-native media, and social media.
As pioneering work by (among others) Jon Mellon and Filippo Trevisan shows, aggregate data from Google user searches can be helpful to understand social phenomena, but it is not without its limitations. In a nutshell:
- Not all citizens or voters are internet users (in Italy, only about 65% are).
- Searching for something on Google cannot be taken as a simple indication of preference, let alone intent to act upon that preference. It is more an indication of curiosity.
- 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.
- Google’s affordances may change the incentives to perform certain searches. For instance, the suggestions and related results one gets while searching may make it easier to find specific pieces of information that previously could only be found via more focused keyword searches.
- 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. This may lead to both false positives (some searches we believe indicate interest in a topic were instead aimed at some other topic) and false negatives (some keywords we did not consider generated a sizable amount of searches in pursuit of information on the topic we want to measure).
As cumbersome as these limitations are, we can still learn something useful from analyzing search data. Thanks to Google Trends, we can inspect searches made by users for any keyword or topic. The data go back in history since 2004 and are updated more or less in real time. In this post, I will simply highlight a few topics and keywords I am keeping tabs on, among other indicators, to track the Italian elections.
Before I do that, two more caveats are in order.
First, Google Trends data are presented with scales normalized from 0-100, where 100 represents the temporal unit when any of the search terms under comparison reached its peak in the period of analysis. We do not know the real volume of searches that any term achieved in any period, which has led some people to, for instance, make too big of a deal of the fact that searches for “What is the EU” peaked in the UK after it had voted to leave the EU.
Secondly, Google allows to search for both “terms” and “topics”. When you retrieve searches for a term, you only get searches that included that term. When you retrieve searches for a topic, Google returns “terms that share the same concept, in any language“. As this conceptual and linguistic mapping results from Google’s own analysis, it is a black box researchers have no way of validating, let alone tweaking. However, it is useful when search terms in and of themselves may lead to too many ambiguities. For instance, one of the leading candidates in the Italian election is Senate President Pietro Grasso. Grasso happens to mean both “fat” and “grease” in Italian. It is also how the adjective used to describe the two biggest Carnival festivities, which are coming up soon. As a result, if we just look at the results for the search term “Grasso” in Italy, we see from the “Related queries” tab that most of the actual searches have nothing to do with politics. This is why whenever possible I will show topic rather than term search results.
I have retrieved search data coming from Italy from January 7th 2018, i.e. the first business day after the Christmas holiday, until January 27. By clicking on the charts below, you can access Google Trends and tweak those searches in any way you like.
For party leaders, use topics to compare center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, Lega Nord leader Matteo Salvini, Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, and Liberi e Uguali (a new left-wing formation) leader Pietro Grasso.
As has been the case ever since he entered politics, Berlusconi has so far managed to attract most of the voters’ attention, as measured via Google searches. Analysis of the temporal patterns reveals that, again in continuity with the past, Berlusconi is skillfully employing television to occupy the political scene. The 14 January peak occurred on the day when Berlusconi appeared in the Sunday entertainment TV program “Domenica Live”, broadcast by in Berlusconi’s flagship network. The 21 January peak coincides with Berlusconi’s appearance in another popular entertainment TV show, “Non è l’Arena”. The 19 January peak also coincides with an appearance in “Mattino 5”, a morning news and entertainment program.
Of course, the fact that these were not classic news programs did not mean that Berlusconi did not discuss his policies there: as one can find by reading news coverage of all three broadcasts, the center-right leader definitely used these appearances to showcase some of his proposals, while at the same time benefiting from a more friendly treatment than he may have received if interviewed by journalists. This is an interesting, albeit indirect, indicator of the relevance of entertainment formats in Italian campaigns, and of users’ dual screening behaviors around those programs.
Berlusconi’s direct competitors, Di Maio and Renzi, follow at some distance. Lega’s Salvini is also quite searched for, while Grasso lags far behind. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (a PD member) generates even lower search volumes.
Until the past few days, the Five Star Movement had gathered the lion’s share of searches, followed by the Democratic Party. However, there has been an uptick of interest in the Democratic Party in the last two days, most likely due to the contested decisions about the party’s candidate lists. The peak of interest around the Five Star Movement one week earlier also coincided with the online primaries the party used to select its parliamentary candidates.
Other parties attract a much smaller volume of searches. (Notice that for Liberi e Uguali I had to use a search term rather than topic because Google has not made that topic available yet.)
When we compare search volumes for parties and their leaders, a few more interesting patterns emerge. Berlusconi attracts attention on himself rather than his party. By contrast, the Democratic Party and Renzi attract similar volumes (before the recent peak of the party’s searches) and the Five Star Movement attracts more searches than Di Maio. Again, one could, with the usual caution, read the data as indicating Berlusconi’s successful personalization strategy, the weakness of the embattled Renzi, and the more collective approach to leadership by the Five Star Movement.
Finally, what are Italians searching for to understand how the campaign is developing? The chart below compares searches for party platforms or manifestos (“programma elettorale” in Italian), candidates (“candidati”), the new electoral law (conventionally called “rosatellum” from the name of the representative who introduced it, Ettore Rosato), fake news (no translation needed here, as the English term has been incorporated into Italian public discourse), and public opinion polls (“sondaggi elettorali”). Similar to what we saw earlier for parties, there has been a surge in searches for candidates. January 29 was the deadline for presenting party lists and as a result journalistic speculation on the composition of the lists massively increased in the run-up to the deadline. Notice that I used terms rather than topics here because these concepts were not available as topics.
Apart from this recent interest in candidates, so far Italians have searched much more for election polls than for party platforms, although perhaps this will change once the latter are officially presented. Until then, the decried tendency by which journalists cover elections as “horse races” instead of substantive policy discussions seems to be replicated by user searches.
There Is More Still to Be Learned
Search volumes are interesting and can reveal some patterns and trends, but the best use of the data may be to drill down into the queries related to the searches. These include references to issue positions, media appearances, and leaders’ families, as well as some inquiries on specific aspects related to the leaders. For instance, some of the most popular keywords on Berlusconi investigate his age (he is 81 years old), those about Di Maio focus on his CV (he does not hold a university degree and has little professional experience), and those about Renzi discuss a widely circulated hoax according to which a new law passed by Parliament that mandated supermarkets to charge customers for eco-friendly fruit and vegetables shoppers was a ploy to enrich a company run by a Renzi associate. Thus, it seems Italians are using Google to investigate their leaders’ potential weaknesses, as in the “monitorial citizen” role conceptualized by Michael Schudson and John Zaller. That some of the most popular Renzi-related searches referred to a contested controversy, which borders on utter disinformation, poses the intriguing question whether users who searched for information on this topic ended up getting closer to the truth thanks to Google, as well as whether the truth was what they were looking for in the first place.
Another interesting way to explore the data is to look at the geographical origin of the searches. Without wanting to make this post longer than it already is, searches for Renzi and Grasso are concentrated in the “red regions” of Central Italy which generally vote left in high numbers, suggesting that internal competition on the progressive side may be most pronounced in its traditional bastions. Salvini is searched quite uniformly across both the North and the Center, which may indicate that his strategy to broaden Lega’s appeal beyond its traditional strongholds may be met by some curiosity among voters in traditionally unfriendly areas. Berlusconi is the most searched leader in the South, in line with his party’s past electoral performances where those regions have often been the key to victory. Finally, Di Maio is the leader whose searches are most evenly distributed across the country, which again squares with previous electoral patterns, as the Five Star Movement has tended to enjoy the most uniform levels of country-wide support among the main parties. Again, these are just hints and the data should not be taken at face value, but they point to interesting patterns and may reveal more if adequately probed.
Let’s Keep Things Into Perspective
As I pointed out earlier, Google Trends provides relative than absolute estimates of search queries, so the numbers plotted in the charts above depend on what terms or topics I compared. One way to get a sense of how much curiosity there really is around the campaign is to compare political searches with searches for non-political keywords. The chart below compares terms for porn (“porno”), Berlusconi (which as shown above is the leader most searched for so far), the weather (“meteo”), soccer trading market (“calciomercato”), and the state lottery (“lotto”).
Berlusconi’s command of Italians’ attention does not look so commanding now, does it? This an instructive reminder that, more often than not, data obtained unobtrusively from users’ online behavior, while very valuable, represents political attitudes and behaviors of a small minority of people who care enough about politics to leave politically relevant digital traces behind.
Many thanks to Filippo Trevisan for his suggestions and encouragement. Make sure you check out his work (especially this article, with Andrew Hoskins, Sarah Oates and Dounia Mahlouly)! All errors and imprecisions are, of course, my own. If you spot any, please do email me at cristian [dot] vaccari [at] gmail [dot] com.