How to guard your social feeds against election misinformation

The 2020 election is different from those that have come before in many ways, including the ways in which we’re Googling.

Waves of Interest, a new collaboration between Google News Initiative and information design firm Truth & Beauty, looks at how Americans’ internet searches have changed over the course of five presidential election years, from 2004 to 2020. The series of interactive data visualizations looks at the relative popularity of a range of popular political concepts, garnered from search trends as well as Pew Research Center election surveys, across election years. So far, 2020’s data goes through September and will be updated when each month is complete.

As Google data editor Simon Rogers told Recode earlier this year, “You’re never as honest as you are with your search engine.” And this year, that honesty has resulted in a snapshot of the biggest concerns and questions Americans have ahead of arguably the most important election of our lifetime. It also suggests which issues might have more bearing on the election’s outcome.

In 2020, a number of the popular searches — postal voting, unemployment, vaccine — relate to the coronavirus pandemic as well as this administration’s response. There’s also increased interest in terms like “fact checking” that have to do with misinformation, whether that comes from foreign interference or from the president himself.

While some issues, like electoral fraud, are common from election to election, others vary widely by year. In the last election, the Second Amendment, minimum wage, and affordable housing were big concerns. (Visit the site for a more comprehensive version of the visualization.) Back in 2004, there was an especially high level of search around same-sex marriage and terrorism.

The visualizations also show where in America these searches are more pronounced, highlighting regional differences over time. Abortion, for example, is of perennial importance in the Midwest and South. Gun control has outsized interest in the West, especially in Wyoming, in every election year. Affordable housing appears to always be just as important in the Northeast as the Southwest. Earlier this century, health insurance was a concern nationwide, but lately, it’s more prevalent in the Northeast.

These charts present a fascinating window into our major concerns going into each election — and 2020’s concerns are particularly novel. Nevertheless, we can’t predict the future based on what people are searching for. But perhaps, thanks to the data the search engine is collecting, we can better understand the past.

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