Numbers Don’t Lie. Or Do They?

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Have you ever wonder how some events get into the headline news? Who really decides which stories to make the news headlines and which ones shouldn’t? Why google returns far more results on negative stories regarding Eritrea than positive ones?

By E Abraham,

Ever wondered why some global events become instant hits and turn into massive international news headlines while others, even if you thought they were equally worthy, would just fizzle out as quickly as a summer cloud. Who decides on which stories get to make it to the news headlines and which ones shouldn’t? This is a million dollar question and one that keeps bamboozling many a people with genuinely newsworthy stories to tell and desperately trying to be heard.

In the good old days–as recently as 20 to 25 years ago–TV, Radio and print media used to be the mainstay of information highways disseminating news and current affairs across the globe. After the introduction of satellite TV and Radio, the common practice of estimating viewership and listener numbers would still continue to be useful in the local context but would prove to be tricky trying to apply it on a global scale.

Individual news organizations would have their own archiving systems to put away old stories and one can only imagine how cumbersome it should have been getting access to those archived stories in a timely manner. And trying to quantify their global reach and influence would have been near impossible.

Fast forward to 2016, it has gotten to a point where any information is virtually a click away. Yes, TV and Radio and to some extent print media are still relevant and perhaps are as useful as they have ever been. However, the advent of the internet has transformed the information landscape beyond recognition and has made it so easy to instantly access content from those old media. The internet also contributes its own content through media that are exclusively electronic and via the ever ubiquitous social media. Once a news item has made it to the World Wide Web (WWW), then it automatically becomes publicly available (bar the few subscription-only contents) throughout the world wherever there is access to the internet. It is online, in the cloud, wherever, forever….the magic of the internet.

Currently, google is one of the most popular–with about 65% market share–and the most powerful search engines in the world which is making searching and accessing online information a breath. Type in ‘a search term’ for the subject of interest and voila! You get multiple ‘hits’, ‘returns’ or ‘results’ in a fraction of a second. A closer look at the top of each search result would reveal a certain random number. A quick google search describes this number as a rough estimate of how many times a given search term would have been mentioned. A highly unreliable and temperamental figure where a slight change in the search term could lead to a variance into the millions and a narrower search term sometimes could give more results than its wider version. Also, as the www–estimated to hold around 14 trillion live web pages at the moment–continues to grow in size, the number of one’s search results last month would obviously be different from the ones from today, next month or next year. The good news is, its unpredictable temperament is assumed to apply across the board and with every single search. Utilizing this number as an evidence to support any claim could be hugely misleading, nevertheless using it as a tool to gauge popularity or penetration of any given information or news item shouldn’t be a problem. Most certainly, it could be used to poke fun at the powers that be whose job it is to turn the lights on and off on whichever part of the world at will.

Back to the topic of how some events get to be headline news. As discussed earlier, the number of search results, with all its flimsiness, could indicate the strength of penetration of news and information and could also serve as a trend-gauge. In most cases, one should also be able to easily understand and explain the reason for a given trend in a manner that is logical and convincing. Let’s, for instance, compare the search results for two different sporting clubs: the English Premier League (EPL) club Manchester United FC and the American National Football (NFL) Club Denver Broncos. A search for Denver Broncos returned 33 Million (Mil) while Manchester United got 225 Mil hits. There could be several reasons, but the most obvious one would be the fact that the NFL’s fan base–being more or less a domestic competition–is largely restricted to Denver, Colorado, and the USA.

On the other hand, the EPL and Manchester United have a global following and hence the huge result. In another example, try comparing the results of searching for the terms ‘the dangers of cigarette smoking’ with that of ‘the dangers of electronic cigarette smoking’ with results of 1.2Mil and 17.4Mil respectively. Now, (this is an interactive read, by the way) try to understand and explain those outcomes in a logical and convincing manner. Nearly impossible? Go figure. How about this, one would get 678,000 hits searching for ‘Malaysia airlines MH17 Ukraine crash’, 1.5Mil for ‘missing Malaysia airlines MH370’ and a whopping 25.4Mil for ‘Flight 103’ as in Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing.

Following are few more examples to illustrate the fact that not every result could be comprehended and explained in a logical and convincing manner. In fact, there appear to be different sets of rules in the game for different players. It also begs the question as to whether we may be witnessing the changing of the guard of information monopoly (and manipulation) from the so-called ‘mainstream media’ to the juggernauts that are the search
engines of the world today.

Few months ago, shortly after the November 13, 2015, Paris terrorist attacks, many non-Europeans were expressing dismay at what they saw as an overwhelming support and solidarity the world was showing to the Paris victims as compared to the response to victims of terrorism elsewhere in the world. The previous day, on November 12, 2015, there was a terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon, and few weeks before that on September 21, 2015, there was another terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya. The dismay of most was not because they didn’t feel sorry for the Paris terror victims, they did. Their dismay was rather due to the perception the world’s reaction towards those multiple events created to somehow suggest that European lives were regarded more valuable than the Lebanese or the Kenyans. People did not post Lebanese or Kenyan flags on their Facebook profiles as much as they did with the French flag. Landmarks and iconic buildings in most Western capitals were displaying the French flag in a show of solidarity with the French people. A quick google search would seem to suggest that those concerns might have some truth to them after all. A search for Paris attacks returns the highest (14.6Mil) followed by Beirut attacks (1.4Mil) and 475,000 for the Nairobi attacks. The number of people who lost their lives in the Nairobi terror attacks was actually bigger than those killed in Beirut. Another search for Charlie Hebdo terror attack, where 12 people lost their lives the previous year returned 4.4 Mil while a search for the Garissa University College attacks of April 2015 in Kenya, where 147 people were reportedly killed, returned 312,000 hits. We might as well live on different planets.

On a lighter note, one would expect that having multiple wives as a sitting president would attract a lot more interest than having a single wife. Not according to google. A google search of ‘the wives of Jacob Zuma’ returned around 67,700 results whereas searching for ‘Robert Mugabe’s wife’ returned 542,000, and you would get a staggering 1.4Mil hits for searching ‘Robert Mugabe’s birthday celebrations’, more than double the amount of results (520,000) you would get for searching the term ‘Ivory Coast civil war 2011’.

Moving closer to home, the Somali civil war has been going on for the last 25 years and South Sudan has only been an independent nation for nearly 5 years. A search for ‘Somali civil war’ returns around 2.0Mil while a search for ‘South Sudan crisis 2013’ comes up with 18.8Mil. We may have our suspicions as to why, only suspicions though! Compare both to the San Bernardino shooting of 2015 in the USA with 30.9Mil, the Michigan gun shooting in February 2016 returning 21.4Mil and the Ukraine crisis scoring 123Mil hits. Alright, alright…. we get it!

After an epic 30 years of war for liberation, Eritrea won the war and declared its independence from Ethiopia. The State of Eritrea will celebrate its Silver Jubilee on May 24, 2016. A google search using the widest possible term ‘Eritrean war’ returns a meager 520,000 results. Are you kidding me! Eritrean war history is largely narrated in terms of successive enemy offensives. One such offensive is called ‘Selahta Worar’ which roughly means ‘stealth offensive’. According to google, it sounds like all offensives were stealth and Eritrea was waging the war of independence underground in high secret, and out of sight of the entire world. This time, the joke is on you google!

There was another recent war with Ethiopia which lasted two years from 1998-2000. An estimated 100,000 people are believed to have been killed during that war. Use a search term ‘Eritrean-Ethiopian border conflict 1998-2000’ and you get a miserly 50,000 results. Compare this number with that for ‘Kosovo war’ producing 48.3Mil and ‘East Timor war’ returning 3.2Mil. Those two wars were fought at around the same time as the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war and the total reported death toll from the Kosovo war, according to Wikipedia, is around the 15,000 mark.

A search for ‘Eritrean economic development and progress’ returned 479,000 while the same search for Ethiopia got 18.4Mil hits. A search for ‘attempted coup in Eritrea 2013 army mutiny’ – a less than a couple of hours of kerfuffle with no death toll –returned 129,000 whereas a search for ‘Oromo protests, unrest, demonstration Ethiopia’, which has been going on for at least four months and where more than 200 people are reported to have been killed to date, returned 30,000 hits. Laughable!

A search for H.E President Isaias Afewerki (don’t use the term H.E, because you would only get 6,500 hits!) returned 106,000 compared to 577,000 for President Salva Kiir, 774,000 for President Yoweri Museveni and 1.1 Mil for ‘Kony 2012’. According to Wikipedia, the film Kony 2012 apparently scored 100Mil views in just 6 days. On the other hand, searching for the term ‘president of Eritrea is dead’ would yield a staggering 800,000 returns whereas a search for ‘Asmara art deco’ could only manage to get 58,000 hits. Someone is really in to Eritrea and its President.

Some search results would inadvertently give us a pretty good idea of what the world is really interested in when it comes to Eritrea. And the search for ‘Eritrea’ generates 210Mil results confirming the fact that the world is well aware of or even perhaps too much aware of Eritrea’s existence. Search, for instance, for the term ‘natural resources in Eritrea’ and you would get 8.3Mil returns and even better the term ‘mining in Eritrea’ would give you 17.3Mil hits. Just when you thought that, at last, you had started to see some real big numbers in a positive way, boom! Enter the search term ‘Eritrea and North Korea’ and you would get a staggering 79.2Mil results and even worse, enter the term ‘the North Korea of Africa’ and you would get…drum roll….a shocking 241Mil hits. 241Million! This is getting ridiculous and exhausting.

It is also exhausting and may feel like an uphill battle at times trying to tell a positive story about Eritrea to complete strangers. We may now know why. May be, just maybe that is because most people nowadays are sourcing their information from google. And, as those few examples may suggest, google has far more negative stories regarding Eritrea than positive ones. More baddies than goodies.

And numbers don’t lie. Or do they?