Posts Tagged ‘Evan Soltas’

The Response to Obama’s Prime-time Address After the Mass Shooting in San Bernadino

September 1, 2017

This post is based largely on the groundbreaking book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Reveals About Who we Really Are.” On December 2, 2015 in San Bernadino, California Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik entered a meeting of Farook’s coworkers armed with semiautomatic pistols and semiautomatic rifles and murdered fourteen people. Literally minutes after the media first reported one of the shooter’s Muslim-sounding name, a disturbing number of Californians had decided what they wanted to do with Muslims: kill them.

The top Google search in California at the time was “kill Muslims” with about the same frequency that they searched for “martini recipe,” “migraine symptoms,” and “Cowboys roster.” In the days following the attack, for every American concerned with “Islamophobia” another was searching for “kill Muslems.” Hate searches were approximately 20% of all searches before the attack, more than half of all search volume about Muslims became hateful in the hours that followed it.

These search data can inform us how difficult it can be to calm the rage. Four days after the shooting, then-president Obama gave a prime-time address to the country. He wanted to reassure Americans that the government could both stop terrorism and, perhaps more important, quiet the dangerous Islamophobia.

Obama spoke of the importance of inclusion and tolerance in powerful and moving rhetoric. The Los Angeles Times praised Obama for “[warning] against allowing fear to cloud our judgment.” The New York times called the speech both “tough” and “calming.” The website Think Progress praised it as “a necessary tool of good governance, geared towards saving the lives of Muslim Americans.” Obama’s speech was judged a major success.

But was it? Google search data did not support such a conclusion. Seth examined the data together with Evan Soltas. In the speech the president said, “It is the responsibility of all American—of every faith—to reject discrimination.” But searches calling Muslims “terrorists,” “bad,” “violent,” and “evil” doubled during and shortly after the speech. President Obama also said, “It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country.” But negative searches about Syrian refugees, a mostly Muslim group then desperately looking for a safe haven, rose 60%, while searches asking how to help Syrian refugees dropped 35%. Obama asked Americans to “not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.” Still searches for “kill Muslims” tripled during the speech. Just about every negative search Seth and Soltas could think to test regarding Muslims shot up during and after Obama’s speech, and just about every positive search hey could think to test declined.

So instead to calming the angry mob, as people thought he was doing, the internet data told us that Obama actually inflamed it. Seth writes, “Things that we think are working can have the exact opposite effect from the one we expect. Sometimes we need internet data to correct our instinct to pat ourselves on the back.”

So what can be done to quell this particular form of hatred so virulent in America? We’ll try to address this in the next post.