Getty Images / Finnbarr Webster / Stringer
New data on Google searches lays bare the obstacles female politicians face in trying to connect with an electorate, especially if they’re becoming well-known for the first time.
Search data gathered during four weeks of the 2019 general election campaign gives a startling insight into British voters’ psychology, showing how Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson’s unsuccessful campaign was profoundly shaped by sexism.
Between November 9 and December 7, 2019, while politicians toured the UK battling for voters’ attention, the seventh most common Google search featuring the word “Swinson” was “jo swinson boobs”. The eleventh was “jo swinson hot”.
Other more common searches during this period included “jo swinson sexy”, “jo swinson body”, “jo swinson measurements”, “jo swinson nipples”, “jo swinson bikini”, “jo swinson cleavage” and “jo swinson stockings”. Of the top 100 Google queries featuring her name, 20 expressed overtly sexist attitudes. That’s not including the further 28 searches that related to Swinson’s appearance or personal life, such as “jo swinson teeth”, “jo swinson husband” and “jo swinson accent”.
By contrast, data on searches for Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson shows that although voters expressed a strong interest in male leaders’ private lives – the second most popular search about Johnson, with 2.22 per cent of all 4.7 million searches featuring his name, was “boris johnson children” – there were almost no searches about their physical appearance. Voters didn’t seem to care what they were wearing. They wondered about their families, but not their bodies. Swinson did not provide any comment when approached for this story.
Instead, the data reveals other hidden currents of public opinion. Of the 34 queries about Jeremy Corbyn related to policy issues, the most common concerned Brexit. The search term “boris corbyn second referendum” was the most popular issue-based search about the Labour leader, coming third overall with 92,704 of the 9.7m queries featuring his surname – an unsurprising result, as the lead-up to the election was dominated by Brexit, before being branded “the Brexit election” by parts of the media (including the broadcaster I work for).
But the second most common issue-based search about Corbyn featured a topic that received far less coverage. It was “jeremy corbyn ira”.
This search was made 44,900 times during the four weeks leading up to December 7, almost double the most-common search about the NHS. Another similar search term, “corbyn ira”, received 27,425 searches. Add up all the queries about Corbyn on this topic and you get a total of 155,885, more than for any other issue.
It’s important not to read too deeply into these findings. The number of searches on Corbyn and the IRA was small compared to the total number for the Labour leader, and the highly individual nature of Google searches means that’s true across the board. (The only searches for Corbyn to be made more than 100,000 times were, predictably, “jeremy corbyn” and “corbyn”). Data from Google Trends suggests that searches for “jeremy corbyn IRA” were also common during the 2017 election, when Labour outperformed expectations and won enough seats to create a hung Parliament.
Likewise, none of the sexist searches about Swinson were made in large numbers. Sam Gilbert, the Cambridge researcher who collected the information, estimates that sexist queries about the Liberal Democrat leader were made 62,580 times, out of a total of 1.4 million. If the data shows one fact above all others, it’s that people weren’t sure who Jo Swinson was: 42.27 per cent of the searches featuring her name were for… her name. (That’s compared to 23.09 per cent for Boris Johnson and 19.03 per cent for Jeremy Corbyn.)
Still, Gilbert says, Google searches can provide a unique insight into the way voters view politicians. Unlike surveys, or statements on social media, they are conducted anonymously, privately and usually alone. They catch us unguarded at the moment we express a thought. “Because we’re so unfiltered when we use Google and other search engines, the data that is created by our internet searches is very powerful,” he says. “You can think of it as a vast reservoir of our opinions, fears, needs, and desires. It expresses our collective consciousness.”
That consciousness is not entirely natural, because of Google’s autocomplete function, which prompts users with suggestions based on popular searches. A search for “jo swinson” today gives “teeth” as the fourth autocomplete option. During the election, “jo swinson teeth” was the tenth most common Google search featuring her name. Autocomplete also suggests “husband”, which was the fifth most popular search about her during the campaign – perhaps because of a false story that Swinson’s husband benefited from European Union funds.
Google Images can be directly sexist. A simple Google Image search for “jo swinson” will produce the suggestions “weight loss” and “big”. A curious user who clicks on “jo swinson husband” and looks for images will be given suggestions for further searches in a little carousel at the top of the page. Current options include “measurement”, “beautiful”, “attractive” and “chest”. (Given that Google search results change over time, it is possible that these particular suggestions were not featured during last year’s election campaign.)
After I alerted Google to this, it said it had changed its suggestions –although they were still up as of Wednesday night.
“With our predictive features, including Autocomplete and refinements in Google Images, we aim not to shock or offend people with sensitive or inappropriate predictions,” a company spokesperson says. “Our systems are trained to avoid showing these types of predictions, but if policy-violating predictive features slip through, as happened in this case, we remove them.”
The data from the UK election demonstrates the importance of media appearances. The interviews, or lack of interviews, with the candidates by the broadcaster Andrew Neil attracted plenty of Google attention, ranking seventh out of 100 for both Johnson and Corbyn, twelfth for Swinson and second, fourth, fifth and sixth for SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.
Social media was also influential. The fourth most popular search for Corbyn was “rachel riley jeremy corbyn t-shirt”, a reference to a t-shirt worn by the Countdown presenter in November 2019 with the message “Jeremy Corbyn is a racist endeavour.”
Gilbert says these very specific searches show the limitations of data captured during the short timeframe of an election campaign, a difficulty compounded by the fact that the Hitwise tool he used to obtain the information was closed by its manufacturer on December 7, meaning he missed out on search data from the days before polling day, December 12.
“This is for a four-week period and hence more prone to a single story figuring prominently,” he says, although he thinks that Google’s autocomplete function was “probably a factor.”
“If Google started suggesting “rachel riley corbyn t-shirt” to people searching for Rachel Riley, that would drive a lot of volume.” But, Gilbert adds, “Big search data often shows the world is richer and stranger than it appears, which is why I am interested in it.”
The idea that search engine data can be used to determine what voters think of candidates more accurately than surveys has been tested in the United States. In 2014, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a data scientist, used search data to estimate that racist attitudes cost Barack Obama roughly four percentage points of the national popular vote in both 2008 and 2012 – 1.5 to 3 times larger than survey-based estimates.
More recently, researchers in São Paulo, Brazil, found that American states where people searched on Google for insults against women were statistically less likely to have voted for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Yet Google searches from the UK election also show that gender is not destiny. Nicola Sturgeon may have received by far the most queries about her appearance and personal life – a total of 38 out of 100, according to Gilbert’s classification – but only three of the top 100 queries about her were overtly sexist. This very qualified success, allied to her electoral triumph, suggests that the Liberal Democrat review into the election, had it about right.
“For any leader to be successful takes time,” the review said. “And – while sex is of course no barrier to being able to do the job successfully – there is a growing body of research on the challenges of being a female political leader which imply that time for preparation is even more valuable. Time not just for themselves and their party, but also for people to ‘get’ someone different from the ‘norm.’”
For Jo Swinson, that time simply did not exist. Next time you hear her campaign written off – in the words of that review – as a “high-speed car crash,” remember that. It’s not easy out there, in the glare of Google’s all-seeing eye.
Rowland Manthorpe is Sky News’s technology correspondent. He tweets from @rowlsmanthorpe
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