The Signal

Search data shows wildly divergent narratives on right and left

David Rothschild, Yahoo! News
The Signal

Did Democrats really hold a Muslim prayer service during their convention? And what about Paul Ryan faking his marathon time?

Search engine queries tell us a tremendous amount about the sort of fears and concerns unique to either political party. But scanning search engine data doesn't tell you much, even if you're able to filter it down to only political inquires. People of both parties search for things like "Romney speech time" or "Clinton speech video," and it doesn't tell us anything about their politics.

To get an insight into the sort of questions that liberals and conservatives uniquely pose to search engines, the Yahoo! Research team in Barcelona has developed an ingenuous tool called Political Search Trends. To find the most interesting data, they look at the search results for queries and identify those that turn up on reliably conservative or reliably liberal sites. (This is all done with anonymous, aggregate data for popular queries, not with what an individual person types in the search box.)

Here is what the tool turned up for the Republican and Democratic conventions, respectively:

During the Republican convention, partisan search terms pointed heavily toward an alleged Islamic prayer at the Democratic convention. (In fact, the Bureau of Indigenous Muslim Affairs did hold a prayer service as an independent event around the DNC, an event that was heavily covered by right-wing blogs. The right was also curious about "The Hope and The Change," a movie created by Citizens United and featuring voters who state they will switch their support for Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012.

At the same time, Democrats were searching for information about the Republican platform, especially the plank involving abortion (see results 6-10). In the wake of the Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's infamous "legitimate rape" comment, many on the left made issue of the fact that the Republican platform does not permit abortion even in pregnancies involving rape, incest or the life of the mother. They were also interested in Hurricane Isaac's path as it swerved around the RNC and struck New Orleans on the anniversary of Katrina.

During the Democratic convention, Republicans were educating themselves about "empty chair day," a salute to Clint Eastwood's RNC convention speech started by right-wing bloggers. The right also expressed concern over tracking polls that were showing a small Republican bounce out of their convention.

At the same time, Democrats were also looking back at the Republican convention, specifically Ryan's "marathon problem." A main topic on left-leaning blogs were questions involving the veracity of Ryan's acceptance speech, so it became a firestorm when it was revealed that he had exaggerated his marathon ability.

The narrative that you read during the election may be very different from the person's on the computer next to you. Political Search Trends opens a small window into what the other side is reading each week, whichever side that may be.

David Rothschild has a Ph.D. in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @DavMicRot.

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