I became interested in the question of whether Left-Wing or Right-Wing ideas are gaining greater visibility, as measured by searches recorded in Google Trends (GT). Particularly in how patterns of searches change relative to each other. Generally speaking there’s more left-wing searches than right-wing searches, but this doesn’t really tell us much- for example, left-wingers might simply be more inclined to Google political ideas. If, however, one set of ideas is attracting increasing interest relative to the other over time, that is more likely to matter.
All values are based on 12 month moving averages to smooth out fluctuations and make long term trends clearer.
Left politics v Right politics: political topics
I started with something simple- how many many people make searches that GT categorises as topic searches for Left-Wing politics, as a ratio of those who make searches GT categorises as Right-wing topic searches. According to GT there’s a startling rise in the comparative advantage of Left-Wing searches. Left-wing politics topic searches have moved from about 105% of the level of right-wing topic searches to about 160%:
But topic searches for left-wing politics and right-wing politics are a tricky metric because it’s hard to know what GT includes in each topic. We’ll now consider some more specific ideologies.
Interest in socialism has vastly increased relative to interest in libertarianism.
Interest in socialism has gone from about 50% of the level of interest in conservatism to about 80%
Marxism has gone from about 60% of the interest level of libertarianism to about 80%
The Intellectual Interest Index (I³)
The final one is mostly just for fun. The long and the short of it is that I made an index out of a bunch of thinkers coded left and right and made a graph of what each side’s strongest periods were in terms of intellectual engagement with their canon thinkers. The fuller, unfortunately messy, details for those interested follow.
For ten thinkers- five left and five right: Marx, Kropotkin, Engels, Luxembourg and Bakunin versus Burke, Mises, Hayek, Rand and Chesterton I took the popularity level, relative to each thinker’s maximum popularity, at any given point in time between 2004 and 2018. I then took the median left-wing thinker popularity and the median right-wing thinker popularity (relative to their maximum) at any given moment and expressed it as a ratio of one over the other. The median was chosen because individual thinkers experience enormous fluctuation in interest due to new stories etc. It’s important to be clear that even more so than the other techniques, this approach cannot tell us who is winning, only what the best periods for each side are, and only then if our sample of thinkers is adequate. Here’s what I found:
The left was doing best relative to the right in the early and late years, while the right did better around 2012. There was a GFC bump but it was relatively small compared to the overall movements- interesting because many of our other graphs feature a large GFC bump. There’s no discernible trend associated with presidential election years.
But what does it mean?
Let’s start with what this doesn’t mean: massive growth in left-wing sentiments among the general public. It’s true that there has been a steady, inching rise in self-identification as ‘Liberal’ in American polling, but it doesn’t correspond to the dramatic shifts seen here. Trump after all won the election- he certainly wouldn’t have if these trends had been representative of the electorate as a whole. Even if we restrict ourselves to trends among the 18–30 demographic, there’s nothing anywhere near this dramatic over this period reflected in voting habits.
One possibility is that right-wingers are simply increasingly getting their information from elsewhere other than Google- searching Youtube, watching television or reading books instead of browsing the internet for example. Thus this shift would not represent a real change in interest in any segment of the population, but rather a change in media selection. I can’t conclusively rule this possibility out, but I consider it fairly unlikely, largely because while I can understand how Googling political topics might become less popular over time, and I can understand how one side of politics might be more likely to Google than another, it’s harder for me to see how the ratio of likelihood to Google could change over time between political tendencies. It’s true that conservatives are becoming more critical of Google after the Damore situation, but that’s fairly recent and honestly I doubt it’s affected conservative Googling that much. Also, if this is the explanation it’s not very well reflected by left-right topic searches on Youtube:
Nonetheless I can’t exclude the possibility that this reflects nothing more than conservatives turning to other sources of information at a faster rate than the left. I’ll be doing further research into book sales and other kinds of searches to see what turns up.
We also can’t really do anything about what we might call antagonistic Googling- Googling the other side for parodies, critiques, hate-reading etc. It could be that this is more common than searching for your own political orientation, if so our results suggest it is actually the right that is gaining in strength. I doubt it though- I’m sure antagonistic Googling is common but it seems unlikely to be more common than Googling perspectives that match your own opinion, and I also doubt that the right’s propensity for antagonistic googling has changed all that much relative to the left’s propensity for antagonistic googling either.
What, then, is the data signalling? I suspect is that the left is beginning to gain the advantage among a particular demographic- people who read a lot about politics on the internet or as Chapo Trap House might put it, “The extremely online”.
Presumably unless you think the left are gaining these converts from the right, the extremely online left is gaining numbers by recruiting the hitherto relatively offline (at least about politics). I favour this explanation partly because it gels with my experience. I simply can’t imagine something like Leftbook- a vast interlinked series of Facebook groups- existing back in the mid 2000’s, even had the technology been around(1). Of course the right has also undergone transformative changes, so who is to say?
The next question is then, suppose the extremely online increasingly favour the left- does it matter? The role of vague mass sentiment versus the passionate views of a small minority is a constant historical and political debate. The answer must surely be that militant minorities work in tandem with mass sentiment and power to make history. Or at least that’s my semi-informed guess. Thus if this trend is real, I expect it to shape discourse and ideas in the coming decade. The question then looms- is it real?
In conclusion: Moar researkch kneedid.
(1)– This is not an endorsement of Leftbook. In the words of Contrapoints: “Everyone is problematic and I disown them all”.
One of the complaints I’ve received about this post is that I didn’t consider Liberalism v Conservatism so here it is. The trend is in the same direction though it’s a little smaller:
APPENDIX II: WORD SEARCHES
So I’m somewhat alarmed at the black-box like character of how Google sorts things into topics, so I thought one way we could try and get more information was just to look for word-searches, e.g. people just searching for particular words, with no reliance on Google sorting things into topics. The problem is though, I’m not sure how to interpret the results- what are we to make of someone just typing a single word in? It seems a lot less informative that a bunch of people are searching for information about liberalism, than that a bunch of people are just searching for the single word ‘liberalism’.
The results suggest that interest in the word “Libertarian” is falling relative to interest in the word “Socialism”, and interest in “Liberalism” has been increasing relative to interest in “Conservatism” for a while. However interest in the word “Liberal” has been falling relative to interest in the word “Conservative” for a while. As I feared, it’s difficult to interpret these results- why is the trend for Liberal v Conservative the exact opposite to the trend for Liberalism v Conservatism? In my future research I’m going to stick to topic searches, or else create very large indexes of a lot of different words.