WASHINGTON — Despite the best efforts of the Fourth Estate, the truth is human beings tend to be remarkably uninformed about their own environment.
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But thankfully, we are also curious.
Which is one very good reason for inventing the search engine.
In the political message ecosystem, chief campaign communicators repeatedly pledge to "cut through the clutter" with their latest pitch to voters. Often, their audience has already beat them to it, seeking the truths (or untruths) that Yahoo and Google can reveal.
An analysis of search term data compiled for NBC News by the online research company Hitwise shows that people in the digital universe are desperately curious about this year's presidential and vice presidential contenders. What they're looking for says a lot about how the campaigns are — and are not — making their messages stick.
To take one example: Democrats spent the week after the GOP convention desperately trying to debunk Sarah Palin's claim that she said "thanks, but no thanks" to Alaska's famed Bridge to Nowhere. Curious truth-seekers used the web to learn more.
About one in every five hundred web searches containing the phrase "Sarah Palin" during that week inquired about the Alaska governor's support for the pork project, making "Sarah Palin Bridge to Nowhere" the 72nd most frequent search term on her list. But ranking far above the earmark investigation in popularity (among the 10 million internet users in Hitwise's sample) were "Sarah Palin legs" (No. 16), "Sarah Palin Vogue" (No. 18), and "Sarah Palin sexy photos" (No. 49).
In other words, while political operatives frenetically worried about how the public viewed the authenticity of Palin's claims, the online public was frenetically viewing — without particular worry about authenticity — doctored photos of a bikini-clad, gun-toting Alaska governor. (see "Sarah Palin bikini," No. 14.)
Fact versus Fiction
Yet web users' sometimes perverse pursuits provide an unfair picture of the legitimate issues and even bold questions sometimes asked of search engines' sophisticated logarithms.
Slideshow: Sarah Palin: Republican star for 2012? During the week of September 13, for example, as America's economic underpinnings were starting to become un-pinned, the term "Obama view on economy" clocked in as one of the "fastest moving" (aka increasingly popular) searches driving traffic to Obama's website.
Last week, "John McCain Spain" debuted at number 10 on the list of "John McCain" search terms after the senator offered an unexpected answer to a Spanish-language radio host who asked if he would agree to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero. (McCain's unusually cool response led some to wonder if the candidate confused Zapatero with the leader of another country.)
The vast majority of searches for each candidate's name appear to be exploratory in nature, with general terms like "John McCain issues" or "Joe Biden info" acting as portals for information for users starting from scratch to learn more about the White House nominees.
Biographical information is also in high demand, particularly for Barack Obama, whose mother, father, sister, and wife are also all popular subjects for searches. Almost 20% of the top 100 search terms for Obama in the past month were ones seeking information on his age, family, and upbringing.
But interestingly, Obama is the only one of the four nominees for whom "affair" is not a popular search.
Hitwise data for the same time period showed that web users wondered feverishly about the extramarital exploits of Palin (rank No. 7 on her search term list), McCain (No. 29), and to a lesser extent Biden (No. 294). Web users also appear to be fascinated with McCain's first wife, whom he divorced after an overlapping courtship of the much younger Cindy McCain.
Batting down false reports
But rumors about the extracurricular sexual activities of the nation's GOP and Democratic tickets are outnumbered online by more nefarious gossip, much of it driven by the blogs and email chains obliquely referenced by Obama — the primary victim of such rumors — as he bats down persistent false reports about his faith.
Despite being debunked by all credible news organizations, allegations of Obama's radical Muslim faith still account for heavy web traffic. The search "Barack Obama Muslim" has fallen from its spot as the third most popular Obama-related search in March, but it remains the tenth most popular today.
Ranking even above that No. 10 slot in mid-September was "Barack Obama antichrist," a manifestation of a list — disseminated via viral emails — of parallels between Obama and the villain in an apocryphal translation of the Book of Revelation. Over 20% of those searching the "antichrist" story clicked through to Snopes.com, an urban legend clearinghouse that brands the story "FALSE" with a trademark red icon. And the Snopes site itself is a common search term for truth-squadders who pair them with candidates’ names.
Web-driven innuendo certainly isn't confined to Obama-related queries. A series of searches, too rare to count precisely by Hitwise standards but still registering in the top 200 searches related to each candidate, show the Googling class snooping around about false rumors that McCain crashed five planes as a navy pilot, that Biden plans to fake an illness and drop out of the vice presidential slot, and that "Sarah Palin is like Hitler" (the latter a claim that seems largely based on the controversy over Palin's alleged attempt to ban books as the mayor of Wasilla.)
Slideshow: Sarah Palin, VP candidate "A lot of this is driven by consumer-driven media, much of it viral in nature," says Bill Tancer, the general manager of global research for Hitwise and the author of the book Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters.
Tancer says that email traffic and cross-posting of heavily trafficked sites can create a snowballing effect like the one he saw develop around the phony photos of a bikini-clad Palin. These organic online movements bypass the mainstream media, he says, and maintain half-lives that long outlast journalists' efforts to debunk the bogus reports.
Taking the message to the web
Although some of the most insidious rumors are born and borne out exclusively online, the very real messages of mainstream media and the campaigns themselves also play out on the web.
The search terms mapped out for each candidate hint at how users explore messages disseminated by the campaigns, sometimes in unintended ways. For example, in the week after the McCain camp publicized an ad questioning Obama on age-appropriate education to protect children against sexual predators, inquiries about "sex ed for kindergarteners" accounted for one in every 300 searches paired with Obama's name.
As the campaigns clobbered each other over women's compensation earlier this month, "John McCain equal pay" captured over a full percentage point of all searches containing the phrase "John McCain."
Sometimes advertising messages manifest themselves online in ways not planned by the message-makers. After McCain's much-publicized "Celebrity" ad depicted Obama alongside still images of pop star Paris Hilton, "John McCain and Paris Hilton" was the phrase that ultimately became a top search, notes Tancer. "Even though that ad was designed to knock the celebrity of Obama," he says, "it actually caused celebrity-type searches on John McCain himself."
Other than individual search terms, sheer traffic from candidate-related searches can offer valuable snapshots of the volume of buzz around the nation's political superstars.
The total market share for the two candidates' websites indicate moments of pronounced interest in the campaigns. Both conventions were matched by soaring numbers of visits to both barackobama.com and johnmccain.com, but the popularity of McCain's site has dropped and stayed low even as the Obama site's market share increased by 28% in the last week alone.
Web traffic from "Palin" search variations skyrocketed to almost 30 times that of any other candidate by the date of her convention speech. That volume fell almost as quickly as it rose, but the dropoff has slowed in recent days. Last week, there were still nearly 10 times as many search terms containing "Palin" as there were for "Biden." One explanation? Five of the top 20 Palin search terms last week were related to Tina Fey's dead-ringer portrayal of the Alaska governor on Saturday Night Live.
But despite data listings of searches that range from the silly ("Joe Biden bobblehead") to the unusual ("Stockholm syndrome and John McCain") to the outright vulgar (unprintable Palin inquries), it's also worth noting that web users are sometimes posing questions that are as bold and legitimate as they are simple.
"John McCain's sister and brother what [do] they do for a living?" queried a small number of users in the last week. "Who cares for Sarah Palin's children?" asked others.
And then, of course, there's the beautifully simple search No. 95 from last week's data: "What does Barack Obama say he is going to do?"
I'll get back to you on that one. Right after I Google it.