BROOKE GLADSTONE: So last Friday, in the first flurry of stories about how the Brits were reacting to the vote to leave the EU, one anecdote seemed to capture the zeitgeist perfectly. We used it. Even John Oliver used it.
WOMAN: Some of the most Googled questions in the UK since the polls closed last night, “What does it mean to leave the EU?” and “What is the EU?”
JOHN OLIVER: That is clearly not good. On the list of all-time bad morning-after Googles, that’s got to be up there with “What is a swastika?” and also “How do you remove a tattoo?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The story fits the narrative of post-referendum panic, voiced by people like this.
[CLIP]: WOMAN: I would go back to the polling station and vote to stay, simply because this morning the reality is actually hitting in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The notion that the Brits were submerged in buyer’s remorse because they hadn’t known what they were voting for was irresistibly distilled by those anxiously Googled questions. But it turns out, it didn’t mean what we thought it meant. The source of the anecdotes was Google Trend Analytics, which software developer and data analyst Danny Page warns is often taken out of context.
DANNY PAGE: If there are 200 people searching that term on a daily basis and it spikes up to 600 or a thousand people, that can show a huge spike. It’s three times, five times, that sounds like a lot more people. But if you didn't know that it was only 200, if you’re lacking that particular context, something like 500 percent more people searching for “What is the EU?” is going to seem newsworthy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why not just type “EU” into your search engine? Why the question?
DANNY PAGE: As opposed to just putting in a topic like “EU referendum,” it seems that a lot of people might form it in a question, like you would have to do for a Jeopardy answer, so “Who is Mitt Romney” of “What is the EU referendum” is just how people sometimes use Google.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, only a thousand people created that spike. So, never again will OTM lean on Google Trends for an easy headline. We have been schooled.
Coming up, transparency in the body politic. This is On the Media.