Web-based search data is a new key to understanding public reaction to major societal events

INDIANAPOLIS -- Analyzing millions of internet searches tied to major societal events offers a new way to understand public reaction to those events, according to new research from the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

In what's believed to be the first study to examine the issue, the IUPUI researchers focused on the public's reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, to test their approach.

Nir Menachemi, a professor and the department chair of health policy and management in the School of Public Health, and researchers Saurabh Rahurkar and Mandar Rahurkar analyzed 5.6 million firearm-related search queries from the Yahoo search engine that occurred two weeks before and two weeks after the shootings.

"We wanted to understand how firearm-related information-seeking, such as looking up relevant laws and learning about advocacy, and web-based behavior, such as visits to firearm retailers, changed immediately after the event," Menachemi said.

Given the amount of data involved, this approach was unimaginable in the past. The researchers went through the 5.6 million firearm-related searches several times to get to the queries used in the study.

"This data is a hidden gem to be added to the arsenal of public health," Menachemi said.

One of the key findings of the analysis was that firearm-related searches more than doubled immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting incident.

Overall, retail websites were the most visited sites, followed by searches for gun types and ammunition. Gun type and ammunition searches had a two- to threefold increase after the shooting incident.

The researchers discovered that most people were getting information from entities that advocate -- either pro-gun or pro-gun control -- rather than from more neutral entities like government or educational websites.

Understanding firearm-related search trends to gain insight into how Americans responded to the Sandy Hook incident can enhance societal debates and inform policy development related to firearms, Menachemi said.

"Now that we have this information, the question is, what can we do with it?" he said.

In the Sandy Hook study, queries can be matched with particular states or smaller geographic areas to see whether searches from politically conservative, or "red," states differ from searches from "blue" states.

"That creates an opportunity to better understand what might be influencing behavior, allowing advocates to intervene with appropriate education content or be better able to react to what information people need," Menachemi said.

Menachemi noted that there are many different areas in which this type of information may improve public health and public health education.

"When we had fears around Ebola, understanding what people worried about could have been extremely helpful to a public health response," Menachemi said. "More recently with Zika, this type of data would give valuable information about what doctors, nurses and front-line clinical staff -- and policymakers -- could do or use to improve their responses to what people are experiencing."

The study, "Using Web-Based Search Data to Study the Public's Reactions to Societal Events: The Case of the Sandy Hook Shooting," was published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.

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