If the eyes are a window to the soul, then surely Google searches are a window into our thoughts. And since actress Alyssa Milano drew attention to the #MeToo movement — begun more than a decade earlier by the activist Tarana Burke — with a tweet in October 2017, Americans have been thinking quite a lot about sexual harassment and sexual assault.
That tweet, written after articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker recounted accusations of abusive behavior by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, encouraged other victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault to share their stories as well. They did so in droves: The #MeToo hashtag was tweeted about 300,000 times on that first day alone.
It now appears that Milano’s exhortation sent Americans to Google in droves to learn more about what exactly qualified as sexual harassment and sexual assault — and what they could do about it.
A research team from Harvard Medical School and UC San Diego documented the extent of this self-education campaign by examining trends in Google searches between Jan. 1, 2004, and Oct. 14, 2017, the day before Milano’s fateful tweet.
Extrapolating from that data, they used an algorithm to estimate how many times Americans would have searched the terms “sexual” with “harassment” and “sexual” with “assault” between Oct. 15, 2017, and June 15, 2018, if the #MeToo movement had never happened. They also made predictions about searches involving either of those combinations along with the terms “report” or “reporting,” or with “train” or “training.”
Then the researchers compared these counterfactual scenarios to the actual number of searches conducted with these keywords during the eight-month period.
Sure enough, online interest in sexual harassment and assault spiked in the U.S., the researchers found.
“The post-#MeToo period corresponded with the greatest number of sexual harassment and/or assault searches ever recorded in the United States,” the researchers reported Friday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
They exact number of searches was difficult to pin down, but the team wrote that it was somewhere between 40 million and 54 million over the entire 8 months. That was 86% higher than they would have expected in the absence of #MeToo.
The search volume was significantly higher than expected in every week throughout the 8-month span, they added.
The researchers also documented a 30% increase in searches about reporting instances of sexual harassment or sexual assault, along with a 51% increase in searches about training to prevent harassment and assault in the first place. Both of those trends took off a short time after Milano’s tweet, according to the study.
“Our findings demonstrate the power of grass-roots movements to respond to large-scale public health crises,” the team concluded. “Public health leaders should respond by investing in enhanced prevention training and improving resources for survivors.”