A slew of news sites ran with an intriguing story over the weekend, pegged to heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea. Americans, it seems, have responded to the increased threat of nuclear war by heading to Google to see what exactly such a conflict would mean.
Or, put more tersely, Americans are suddenly Googling “World War 3” far more than they used to. Using data from Google Trends, we can see how interest in the term has spiked.
But that search includes only searches for “World War 3” — not searches for “World War III” or “World War Three.” Searches for that latter term look different, peaking in July 2006.
(Why did searches for the term peak that summer? Because Newt Gingrich declared that the fight against terrorism constituted the Third World War.)
What’s more, this includes results for the entire phrase. If you search for World War Three, without quotes, the results are cyclical, peaking every spring at about this time.
The reason for that is simple: It’s when kids in school take up the subject of the world wars in history class.
If we consider searches for the Second World War, we see the same pattern. Over the course of the school year, those searches increase, generally peaking in the spring.
We notice something else, too. While “World War II” and “World War 2” used to be searched with about the same regularity, since 2009 or so, people look up “World War 2” much more than they do “World War II.”
That carries over into those searches about the new world war. Over the past month, when interest in the term spiked, the number of searches for “World War 3” far outpaced searches for “World War Three” or “World War III.”
However, those searches demand additional context. Compared with searches for one of the most popular search terms on Google — “Donald Trump” — searches about “World War 3” are relatively small.
Incidentally, not all of the searches about “World War 3” are a function of Trump. You may notice a spike in late 2015, as well. That’s when the hip-hop artist Gucci Mane released the album “World War 3,” which continues to work its way into searches for the term.
People are certainly more worried about the threat of nuclear war than they were when that album came out. But it’s certainly worth remembering that what people search for doesn’t always tell us everything about what they’re thinking.