On Google Trends and presidential surveys

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan - The Philippine Star

Presidential surveys and Google Trends tell different stories. Surveys give us a snapshot of where candidates stand at the time the survey was conducted. Google Trends, on the other hand, foretells election outcomes based on the online behavior of the voting public over a period of time. Candidates leading in surveys assert that national surveys are indicators of the final election results. Those lagging question the veracity of surveys. How do we make sense of it all?

I believe that national surveys conducted by reputable polling agencies provide an accurate snapshot of how people respond to certain questions.

Do I believe that all surveys published in media are accurate? No. Some pollsters are more reputable than others. Among the multitude of pollsters that emerge during elections, I trust the Social Weather Stations (SWS). SWS has had an impeccable record of objectivity that spans 36 years. Their methodologies conform to internationally accepted standards.

Do I believe that national surveys reflect the genuine preferences of the voting public? No, and the reason lies in what is called posturing. Posturing occurs when the respondent feels the need to conform with the majority, bend to social pressures or succumb to intimidation. Studies show that in the United States, seven to eleven percent of respondents voted differently from how they answered in a poll.

In countries like the Philippines where politics is patronage-driven, as much as 28 percent answer differently from how they vote. For Filipinos, intimidation – whether direct, implied or imagined – weighs heavy on our psyche given that “tokhang” and extrajudicial killings are everyday occurrences for us, especially in the provinces. Fear of retribution compels many to answer what they believe to be “correct” rather than what is true.

Are surveys accurate in predicting trends? Not as they used to be. We can refer to the experience of the United States for this. It will be recalled that in 2012, the majority of pollsters, including the highly respected Gallup Polls, predicted a win for Romney over Obama. In 2016, no less than Reuters predicted a Hilary Clinton win with a certainty of 90 percent. In 2020, the majority of American pollsters, including Moody’s Research, predicted an easy victory for Donald Trump.

This is not to say that pollsters are unable to provide accurate ratings and foretell trends. They can – but only if the respondents answer honestly. Inaccuracy arises when respondents posture.

Google has a different approach. As we are all aware, the internet has become our primary source of information. In the Philippines, 92.1 million are netizens and members of at least one social media platform.

There are 4.2 billion daily Google searches worldwide and this is mined for valuable data to foretell voters’ preferences. Google accounts for 80 percent of worldwide searches. Its dominance has enabled it to become a representative sample of populations. By counting searches through keywords, Google is able to establish trends. In general, the candidate whose name is searched more and whose positive engagements outnumber negative comments emerges as the trend leader. The trend leader eventually wins the elections. This has been true in the United States, Canada and numerous democracies.

Doctor of Social Psychology of the University of California Christine Ma-Kellams said that Google search has become the most powerful predictor of political behavior compared to other measures. This is because data generated on digital channels are free from posturing and reflect the people’s true intentions, without filters. Hence, it is a more reliable predictor of election outcomes.

Google Trends has been accurate even in high-volatility scenarios where trolls disrupt the general online sentiment. Not only was it successful in predicting the election outcomes in the United States since 2004 (including Trump’s 2016 win), it has accurately predicted the victories of Canadian Prime Minsters Paul Martin in 2003, Stephen Harper in 2006, 2008 and 2011 and Justin Trudeau in 2015, 2019 and 2021. Similarly, Google Trends accurately predicted the election results in Greece, Spain, Germany, Brazil and the Philippines, where Mr. Duterte won.

That said, we can assume that the candidate who will become the new Philippine president is the one who generates the most Google searches and who arouses the greatest positive sentiment among the voting public today.

So who leads in Google Trends among the two leading candidates?

The Google Trend report covering Feb. 5 to March 2, 2022 (which you can refer to on Google itself) shows that the keywords “Leni” and “Robredo” lead in search and positive engagements with an aggregate score of 107. The keywords “BBM,” “Bongbong ” and “Marcos” trails with a score of 79.

These are the breakdown of scores of the two leading candidates in the various regions of the country: Metro Manila – Robredo 59, Marcos 41; Calabarzon – Robredo 61, Marcos 39; Central Luzon – Robredo 57, Marcos 43; Central Visayas – Robredo 56, Marcos 44; Ilocos Region – Robredo 48, Marcos 52; CAR – Robredo 60, Marcos 40; CARAGA – Robredo 68, Marcos 32; Cagayan Valley – Robredo 54, Marcos 46; Bicol Region – Robredo 69, Marcos 32; Western Visayas - Robredo 61, Marcos 39; Eastern Visayas – Robredo 55, Marcos 45; Central Visayas – Robredo 56, Marcos 44; Northern Mindanao – Robredo 58, Marcos 42; Davao Region – Robredo 53, Marcos 47; Zamboanga Peninsula – Robredo 59, Marcos 41; SOCCSKARGEN – Robredo 59, Marcos 41; MIMAROPA – Robredo 58, Marcos 42; ARMM – Robredo 70, Marcos 30.

Taking the data of the last five weeks into consideration, Google Trends predicts a Robredo victory.

Indeed, Google’s prediction is a departure from the surveys conducted by the different polling agencies, including SWS. Only time will tell if traditional surveys are more accurate than Google, or vice versa. There are still 62 days before Election Day and trends can very well shift. No matter the result, what is important is that the elections are peaceful, fair and transparent and that the will of the people is held supreme.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook @Andrew J. Masigan and Twitter @aj_masigan

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