Book Review – everybody lies (What the Internet Can tell Us About Who We Really Are)

I opened this book, clocked the first line and hoped immediately, that reading it would answer the one question myself and just about everyone I know, keeps on asking.

Surely he would lose, they said.

And because he didn’t, this book exists. And so far, that is the one and only single positive of the Trump Presidency.

It’s written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Stanford graduate in Philosophy with a PhD from Harvard also under his belt, who went on to do the only thing an education like that leads to – work at Google as a data scientist. Now a former data scientist, he pens the occasional New York Times Open-Ed column and conducts his own research using guess what? The Internet. And that brings us to the importance of this book.

Using internet search data, Seth attempts to understand us humans. And what he discovers is in many ways ugly, frightening, astonishing…but above all, honest. And therein lies the book’s rub – that we lie to our friends, family, lovers and colleagues. We also lie in surveys, polls, vox pops and even to doctors and therapists. But there is one place where we don’t lie is the Internet. That’s where we comfortable revealing our true selves.

Working on the premise that we only tell the truth when we’re typing something into Google’s search box or browsing the Internet, Seth tries to make sense of our humanity and our culture through search. And what he unearths is compelling stuff – just ask Donald Trump. Or Barack Obama.

Let’s start with the mass shooting that took place in San Bernardino, California on December 02, 2015. Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik entered the Farook’s workplace with semiautomatic weapons and murdered 14 people. Within hours of the shootings being reported in the media, the top search on Google in California with the word Muslims in it was ‘Kill Muslims’. Four days following the shooting, Obama gave a prime-time address to the nation to reassure Americans and curb the rising Islamophobia. As expected, Obama’s speech was calm, powerful, deeply moving and hailed by the liberal media as a success. The Los Angeles Times thanked Obama for warning Americans against the danger ‘of allowing fear to cloud our judgement’. It seemed the President had said all the right things to heal the nation. Only he didn’t. The televised speech had the opposite effect. The Google data saw search spikes all over the country for ‘terrorists, ‘bad’ and ‘violent’ and searches for ‘Kill Muslims’ tripled during the speech. Despite how positively the media viewed the speech, despite us telling each other Obama did what Presidents should do in troubled times and act … well, presidential,  instead of calming Americans the speech only succeeded in further inflaming their fears.

Some of the stuff in this book made me want to stop reading and take a shower to try and wash the learning off – especially those sections like The Truth About Hate and Prejudice or The Truth About Child Abuse and Abortion. Other sections in the book, like The Truth About Sex made me laugh out loud and The Truth About Your Facebook Friends made me better understand bias.

But just how big is the Big Data references we’re talking about? To get to the truth about sex question, Seth starts with Facebook data because it allows users to list their gender preference, then he adds Google searches and Adword data and finally, to really understand what we’re looking for – or at – he downloaded (with permission) the complete set of data on searches and video views of anonymous people around the world on Porn Hub. (It’s not for this review to go into the truth revealed in that section of the book  but it is compelling reading.)

Add to these Big Data sets, the whole of Wikipedia (these days simple enough to download in an afternoon), the whole of Stormfront (a white nationalist, white supremacist, anti-Semitic, Holocaust denying, neo-Nazi internet forum with over 10 million posts) and a ton of other Big Data sources… and you begin to get the picture of just how powerful and telling this stuff is.

Reading this book is difficult because it points so emphatically to the fact that everybody lies. About everything. And those hard truths reveal a bigger question: If the reveal about human nature uncovered in this book and supported by the questions we’ve asked and searches we’ve made on the internet tells us we’re not very nice, then what are we going to do about it? Where to next? And while we’re at it,  what happens if the information Seth has access to gets into the ‘wrong’ hands – what happens then? Oh wait.  We’re living it.

But as the book points out, there is hope. To understand human sexuality,  we used to refer to the limited data offered by Kinsey. Now, we refer to Porn Hub. And that’s a Big Data set. But perhaps you need a Big Data set to answer a Big Question. Like what does it mean to be human?

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