The Middle East according to Google Autocomplete
By Max Fisher
January 28 at 4:47 pm
Each country shows Google’s top suggestion when you search “Why is [country] so” (Max Fisher/Washington Post)
What do Americans search for when they Google the Middle East? This map is an attempt at an answer. It shows the top results when I typed “Why is [country] so” into the Google search bar and let Google’s autocomplete function suggest how to finish my sentence. Very roughly, this lets us get a glimpse at the most frequent American searches for Middle Eastern countries.
You may recognize the premise, which was inspired by Randal Olsen’s Google autocomplete map for Europe. To make the map more readable, I’ve put Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in an inset map in the bottom-left corner.
By far the most common search term for these countries was “important,” suggesting that Americans are trying to figure out what makes this part of the world so consequential (it’s a fair question). This term was so common, in fact, that in cases where it was the top suggestion, I also included the second-highest suggested search term. “Dangerous” showed up for Algeria and Syria; “Violent” for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jordan and Turkey are not included since the top results for each clearly refer to different Jordans and Turkeys. In the latter case, the results mostly pertain to turkey the food: “dry,” “cheap,” “expensive this year.” And one important caveat is that Google autocomplete results are not universal. I searched in Chrome through “incognito” mode to depersonalize the results as much as possible, but it surely based the results in part on my IP location in Washington, D.C. If you get different results, please add them in the comments.
To be clear, I’m not endorsing these results as anywhere near accurate; some of them are outright offensive. Before you ask, I have no idea why people are googling “Why is Saudi Arabia so stupid,” particularly since Saudi education rates are some of the highest in the region. But these results are a revealing, if at times unsettling, glimpse into how Americans think about a part of the world where their government and military are deeply engaged on their behalf.
There are a few questions implicit in these autocomplete results. The first and maybe biggest is: Why do we care? Why is this so important? What makes Syria “pivotal”? The second seems to be about the fundamental power relationships of the Middle East: why is the United States aligned with Israel (“…so important to America”) and against “evil” and “powerful” Iran?
There are two ways to read this, that I can see. First, maybe Googlers are curious about, and perhaps even questioning, the basic assumptions driving U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Whether or not you support those policies, having Americans more engaged with their fundamental premises is surely a good thing. But the second way to read it is that Americans, after decades in the Middle East, still don’t understand how and why the region works as it does. That would be less encouraging, although the fact that they’re trying to find out is something.
To be fair, a lot of these questions are really complicated. If you asked a room full of Middle East experts “why is Saudi Arabia so conservative” or “why is the West Bank so important to Israel,” their first response would likely be to scoff at your ignorance. But the truth is that there is no simple, straightforward answer to these questions. If that room full of experts actually had to answer them, they’d probably all end up fighting with each other over how to even think about beginning to answer them, much less the answers themselves.
All of which is a long way of saying: keep Googling, Americans, and hopefully we in the community of journalists, academics, policy professionals and think tankers will one day be able to provide you with sufficiently insightful answers.
Max Fisher is the Post’s foreign affairs blogger. He has a master’s degree in security studies from Johns Hopkins University. Sign up for his daily newsletter here. Also, follow him on Twitter or Facebook.