Turkey’s hidden portrait in Google searches

Turkey’s hidden portrait in Google searches

Unlike highly selective social media posts, in which we try to shape our public image, web searches are much honest as they are usually made in the privacy of our computers and smartphones. They reveal more about our inner selves: Our frankest questions, deepest fears, desires and hates.

On Google, over 9 billion searches were made worldwide every day in 2016. These searches present an unprecedented data source for social studies, as well as in many other areas. This is especially true for highly connected societies. Turkey had only 20 percent Internet penetration a decade ago, but this number now stands at over 60 percent with the advent of the smartphone. Smartphones are now common in even the remote rural parts of the country. Turkey is thus one of the world’s most active countries in the use of social media.

As Hürriyet’s digital content coordinator, I recently took part in a side-project studying the dimensions of Google search trends in Turkey. Although this area of study is now pretty familiar in most Western countries, reflected in books such as Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s “Everybody Lies,” it was not easy in Turkey. The peculiarities of the Turkish language and missing or unstructured official data - particularly for Google Correlate studies - were among the barriers.

But we still found several interesting results, which we published on the Hürriyet website on Oct. 5 and described on CNN Türk on the same day. Listed below are some of the top findings.

- UNSEEN SYRIANS: With the arrival of around 3 million Syrian refugees, Arabic has become a common Google search language in Turkey. One of the most surprising findings in this case was the sheer amount of Arabic-language searches from the western province of Çanakkale. The intensity of these Arabic searches indicates that the real number of Syrians in Çanakkale is actually several times higher than shown in the official data, which claims that only 0.74 percent of locals in Çanakkale are Syrians.

Çanakkale has become a hub for irregular Syrian migrants hoping to cross to the nearby Greek island of Lesbos. It is also one of the main destinations for seasonal agricultural workers, as many employers carry Syrian workers from southeastern provinces to Çanakkale farms during the summer. This finding may boost the argument that the Turkish authorities fail to monitor Syrian immigrants’ movements inside Turkey after successfully registering them at border gates.

* DANGEROUS TRENDS: Shamefully, Turkish-language searches for “Syrian women prices” and even “Syrian women catalogue” are popular enough to appear in Google’s autocomplete feature. This is true not only in several southeastern provinces, but also in provinces like Adana and Konya. However, the main Arabic searches in Turkey, such as for “news,” have been dropping for the past two years, which may show that the largest refugee waves from Syria have already passed and the migrant deal with the EU has worked.

The Turkish authorities could use the set of Arabic searches occasionally trending in certain cities to better manage public services. For example, Arabic searches for “hospital” have dramatically increased in the Black Sea province of Trabzon, which could prompt officials to adjust healthcare capacity there. (Officials should also monitor emergent Turkish searches - such as for diarrhea, depression and other health problems – in order to respond more quickly).

Meanwhile, Google searches also hint that there are more Turkish-speaking people seeking to join or help the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) than Arabic speakers in Turkey. According to the Google data points, the authorities should focus on them not only in Istanbul and Ankara, but also in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır.

* INTERESTING NOTES: Google search trends and official Turkish data also reveal information about controversial issues that have been debated in Turkey in recent weeks. For example, Google data shows that searches for “incest porn” and “incest sex” were lower in Turkey than the global average between 2004 and 2012. Since 2012, however, they have increased by 400 percent, rising far above the global average, particularly in eastern and northern Turkey, as well as Central Anatolia.

Seemingly contrasting trends can also be observed, hinting at a deeply polarized countries: “Liberal” or “secular” searches, such as about modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and ingredients for homemade rakı, have both peaked in recent years. “Conservative” searches such as “praying times” and “buy hijab” have also peaked. Apart from these observable aspects of conservatism, Google trends indicate that more radical forms of religiosity - such as searches associated with hardcore religious orders - actually peaked in 2015 and have been declining ever since.

Still, there are other alarming Turkish search trends. One popular search is for “How can I murder my husband?” which may indicate the prevalence of domestic violence against women.

Of course, correlation is not causation, and this is usually the hardest challenge you face when dealing with Google search data. What can be said about the quite high correlation between Google searches for ulcer medicine and official inflation data in Turkey? Can Turks not stomach higher prices?

Contact me at ekizilkaya@hurriyet.com.tr with comments or fresh ideas on how to use Google data and official Turkish statistics in more creative ways - in order to learn more about the “real Turkey.”

Opinion, Emre Kızılkaya,