Interest in Islamic State Unprecedented: And Why Do We Care So Much?

[NOTE: Most of this was originally posted to my personal blog yesterday. For this post I’ve made some alterations appropriate to this blog’s theme.]

Today I started playing around with Google Trends, a web search analysis of Google searches in real time, going back to 2004. This tool has been used in some very interesting scholarly research, particularly because of its ability to “detect regional outbreaks of influenza 7–10 days before conventional CDC surveillance,” which is pretty darned cool, if you ask me. Given that I’ve only been playing with this thing for a day, I’m nowhere near that level of expertise. But I can do basic things, and therefore I decided to pick five different organizations designated as terror groups by the US Department of State and compare their search volumes.

First, I should get some administrative matters out of the way. Google Trends reveals search results by volume instead of by frequency. This occurs on a linear scale from 0 to 100. Searches appearing most often during a specific time period are ranked at 100, while searches appearing less often score below 100. This is somewhat frustrating. Moving on.

The groups I chose are:

  1. Hamas
  2. Hezbollah
  3. Boko Harum
  4. The Islamic State (ISIS)
  5. Al Qaeda

The results that came up were rather surprising:

terror org searches

Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda searches occur in relatively similar volume clusters along no discernible pattern. Searches for Hezbollah peaked during the 2006 Summer War and then fell into relative obscurity (more on Hezbollah in a bit). Searches for al Qaeda appear to occur in a few major clusters, but nothing remarkable since 2011. Searches for Hamas appear to occur each time Israel engages military action in the Gaza Strip. Boko Haram was relatively ignored by Google searchers until the last two years. But searches for ISIS since 2014 have exploded… more than once!

Not only have searches for ISIS gone up and remained relatively high, searches for the group are also so frequent compared to the other groups that they dramatically skew the y-axis. [NOTE: Most pre-2013 searches for ISIS have nothing to do with the Islamic State. Isis is a given name, the name of a goddess, and the name of a few other non-terrorist organizations. This explains the relatively stable horizontal green line traveling the span of 2004 to 2013 along the x-axis]. Let’s put this into perspective by examining Hezbollah by itself.

terror org searches2

In the first image searches for Hezbollah peak in 2006 during the Summer War. From there on out searches for Hezbollah drop to essentially zero, relative to the other search results. But when we focus only on Hezbollah, we rescale the results where the 2006 peak is at 100. This reveals a few minor peaks in subsequent years. But if we change the date range of the query, we see that these peaks aren’t necessarily trivial.

terror org searches3

Here I’ve begun the query on January 1, 2007, as opposed to 2004, and we see these peaks can get pretty high. And we know these aren’t trivial because each letter corresponding to a peak is a major event published in major news articles, such as truck bombings and Israeli air strikes against the group.

In other words, Hezbollah is a household name, not just in Lebanon, but also globally. Yet Google searches for the group come nowhere near the rate at which people are currently using Google to search for ISIS. Even searches for the most dramatic event in Hezbollah’s history don’t come anywhere close to the number of Google searches for the Islamic State.

I don’t know what any of this means other than that people appear more interested in ISIS than Hezbollah and the other groups. I don’t know what we can do with this information. It might just be trivial, but it’s very interesting.

Why Do We Care about ISIS so Much?

To be honest (and to not contradict myself in the paragraph above), I don’t know the answer to this. I can take some guesses:

  1. The Islamic State’s brand of cruelty is unique and very public. But that’s not necessarily true. During 2004 al Qaeda carried out a campaign of public and filmed beheadings. The Islamic State is merely copying the methodology.
  2. The Islamic State’s brutality is an everyday occurrence. This one might be true. We could almost set our watches to the release of news stories about IS’s latest act of genocide.
  3. The Islamic State is engaged in total holy war, intent on dismantling the secular Westphalian State Model in the Levant and across large sections of the globe, and that scares the crap out of us. This one might also be true, but I don’t think most people are searching for ISIS to read up on their international relations platform.

The Islamic State is doing something unique that has peaked a lot of people’s interest, and my actual guess is it has something to do with its unique bastardization of Islam. It’s my hope that this increase in search activity is happening because people are disgusted with the group and are seeking to confirm their beliefs by keeping up to date with the Islamic State’s inhumane atrocities. At least, the best source for accusations against the Islamic State is your nearest newspaper. Any story about IS is inherently a story about evil.


As commenter siriusbizinus pointed out, this unprecedented interest in IS could “be a product of their media outreach,” which could inspire, for example, “westerners [to try] to join its ranks.” Well, this compelled me to do another Google Trends query, and wouldn’t you know it; Google searches for ISIS match perfectly with google searches for “join ISIS.” Could this be a research project? Probably not, but my interest is definitely piqued.

terror org searches 4

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
This entry was posted in Atheism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Interest in Islamic State Unprecedented: And Why Do We Care So Much?

  1. It would be most interesting to find the source of the volume of searches. I know that there are some other atypical things about ISIS, like westerners trying to join its ranks. Could this also be a product of their media outreach? I mean, despite the fact that they publicly behead people and commit other atrocities, you have people trying to join that organization.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Thanks for your feedback. This motivated me to do a GT search for “join ISIS,” and as you’ll see in the edit at the bottom of this post, the results perfectly match searches for ISIS. Good brain you got there.

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