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by Dries Van Thielen

On his latest Freakonomics podcast episode, journalist and a personal hero of mine Stephen Dubner interviewed the philosopher/economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. The author of the recently published “Everybody Lies” tackled the issue of post-terrorist attack speeches and how effective they were to convince an audience. His method was simple: he gathered and crunched sets of data from Google Searches before, during, and after the president addressed the nation. Then, he checked whether some specific keywords increased as a result of the attack.

What he uncovered was truly terrifying: in the aftermath of a radical-Muslim terrorist attack, Stephens-Davidowitz found “a direct correlation between anti-Muslim searches [like ‘Kill all Muslims’, ‘Hate Muslims’, etc.  on Google] and anti-Muslim hate crimes […] if our model is right, Islamophobia and thus anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently higher than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks”.

2015 San Bernardino Attack

In the direct aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino attack –  committed by Radical Islamists Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik – president Obama gave a speech directly out of the oval office on how to keep ‘our country save’.

Stephens-Davidowitz told Dubner that even though this was one of Obama’s finest speeches he “found that all the searches during the [San Bernardino] speech went up when he [Obama] said it is our responsibility to reject fear, and it is our responsibility to reject people based on religion. But searches against Syrian refugees went up and searches to kill Muslims were going up. […] So it seems that everything Obama was doing – even though all the traditional media sources were saying he was doing a great job –  was actually backfiring in terms of his real goal which was to calm an angry mob”.

Interest < Hate

In a column for The New York Times, Stephens-Davidowitz wrote that interests, ergo Google Searches within the subject of ‘alien religion’, increased as well. Phrases like ‘Who is Muhammed’, ‘What do Muslims believe?’ and ‘What does the Quran say?’ were trending. Unfortunately, “They were no match for intolerant [Google Searches]”, added Stephens-Davidowitz.” While hate searches were about 20 percent of all top searches about Muslims before the attack, more than half of all search volume about Muslims became hateful in the hours that followed”.

Light at the And of the Tunnel?

However, there seems to be a silver lining in Stephens-Davidowitz’s discourse. While yes, there might not be a coherent solution to combat this kind of digital xenophobia, general (non-hatred) interest is rising in Muslim Culture. For example, in the same San Bernardino speech, Obama added the line ‘Muslim Americans are our friend and our neigbors, our co-workers, our sport heroes and yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defense of our country’.

What Stephens-Davidowitz found was hopeful. For the first time in years, the top Googled noun following ‘Muslim’ wasn’t ‘terrorist’, ‘extremist’ or ‘refugees’… Rather, it was ‘athlete’.

Jon Favreau, president Obama’s former speechwriter, wasn’t surprised with the outcome. Stephens-Davidowitz cited him in the same column saying “Finding out that someone who’s been a hero of yours, that you’ve looked up to your whole life, happens to be a Muslim, is a pretty powerful reminder, this is a religion that is a part of America and has always been a part of America”.

So who is a Muslim athlete? Shaq!


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  • Sean

    “But searches against Syrian refugees went up and searches to kill Muslims were going up. […]”

    The thing is, non-Muslims are not killing Muslims. So why waste time researching their Google searches?

    I thought Libertarianism was about personal liberty, not propagating the idea of thought crimes or vilifying people on the basis of Internet searches.

    “Phrases like ‘Who is Muhammed’, ‘What do Muslims believe?’ and ‘What does the Quran say?’ were trending.”

    When people discover that Mohammed had a nine-year old wife, a group of captive women that he kept as sex slaves and a penchant for killing Jews, will they somehow feel more positively toward Islam?

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