"Google data, evidence suggests, are unlikely to suffer from major social censoring," Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in a previous paper. "Google searchers are online and likely alone, both of which make it easier to express socially taboo thoughts. Individuals, indeed, note that they are unusually forthcoming with Google." He also notes that the Google measure correlates strongly with other standard measures social science researchers have used to study racist attitudes.
This is important, because racism is a notoriously tricky thing to measure. Traditional survey methods don't really work -- if you flat-out ask someone if they're racist, they will simply tell you no. That's partly because most racism in society today operates at the subconscious level, or gets vented anonymously online.
For the PLOS ONE paper, researchers looked at searches containing the N-word. People search frequently for it, roughly as often as searches for "migraine(s)," "economist," "sweater," "Daily Show," and "Lakers." (The authors attempted to control for variants of the N-word not necessarily intended as pejoratives, excluding the "a" version of the word that analysis revealed was often used "in different contexts compared to searches of the term ending in '-er'.")
It's also important to note that not all people searching for the N-word are motivated by racism, and that not all racists search for that word, either. But aggregated over several years and several million searches, the data give a pretty good approximation of where a particular type of racist attitude is the strongest.
Interestingly, on the map above the most concentrated cluster of racist searches happened not in the South, but rather along the spine of the Appalachians running from Georgia all the way up to New York and southern Vermont.
Other hotbeds of racist searches appear in areas of the Gulf Coast, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and a large portion of Ohio. But the searches get rarer the further West you go. West of Texas, no region falls into the "much more than average" category. This map follows the general contours of a map of racist Tweets made by researchers at Humboldt State University.
So some people are sitting at home by themselves, Googling a bunch of racist stuff. What does it matter? As it turns out, it matters quite a bit. The researchers on the PLOS ONE paper found that racist searches were correlated with higher mortality rates for blacks, even after controlling for a variety of racial and socio-economic variables.
"Results from our study indicate that living in an area characterized by a one standard deviation greater proportion of racist Google searches is associated with an 8.2% increase in the all-cause mortality rate among Blacks," the authors conclude. Now, of course, Google searches aren't directly leading to the deaths of African Americans. But previous research has shown that the prevalence of racist attitudes can contribute to poor health and economic outcomes among black residents.
"Racially motivated experiences of discrimination impact health via diminished socioeconomic attainment and by enforcing patterns in racial residential segregation, geographically isolating large segments of the Black population into worse neighborhood conditions," the authors write, summarizing existing research. "Racial discrimination in employment can also lead to lower income and greater financial strain, which in turn have been linked to worse mental and physical health outcomes."