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Google could do more to prevent men killing women

Update: The research about increases in the number of Google searches re: domestic abuse had flaws in its methodology. The researcher addressed it on Twitter.

While good to know, that doesn’t change the overall argument of this article: that search engines could do more to break the cycle of abuse and that there’s precedence for their doing so. As such, I’m leaving the article as-is. Just know that the numbers reference below, in regards to search numbers, are’t accurate.

Domestic abuse has spiked over the past year. Both its perpetrators and its victims are turning to search engines like Google for advice. And Google isn’t doing enough to address the problem.

Liz Plank, writing for MSNBC puts it bluntly:

Men on a global scale are increasingly killing the women they purport to love.

As Plank explains, this violence is “usually premeditated”. The Google searches back it up. A recent study tracked searches about domestic abuse made in the US between March and August 2020 to the amount made in 2019.

A few searches, and how often they happened:

  • “How to hit a woman so no one knows” – 163 million (up 31%)
  • “I am going to kill her when she gets home” – 178 million (up 39%)
  • “How to control your woman” – 165 million (up 67%)

They’re all upsetting but the phrasing of the third one – “control your woman” – is insidious. It feels innocuous compared to the imminent threat of violence but the desire for for control is often the first step towards that violence. It reveals a sense of ownership and entitlement, for one, but it also shows someone reaching out a way to dominate someone’s life. People are looking ways to coerce someone else, be it subtly or not, and they’re finding it. To see people reaching for that power over someone gets under my skin (and the fact that they’re getting advice on how to achieve it is even worse).

Here’s the other half of the story:

  • “He will kill me” – 107 million (up 84%)
  • “Help me, he won’t leave” – 222 million (up 95%)
  • “He beats me up all the time” – 320 million (up 36%)

These aren’t just numbers. They’re people looking for help because their partners, their communities, and society as a whole has failed them. And Google isn’t helping.

According to Plank, “none of the aforementioned searches appear to return any domestic violence resources or hotlines.” This stands in contrast with Google’s approach to suicide prevention: since 2010, people have been presented with resources to help and phone numbers to reach out to when they enter search for certain terms.

Meanwhile, searching for “how to control your woman” brings you tips on coercive control, one of the most insidious and vile forms of domestic abuse. (See Jess Hill’s book See what you made me do for some must-read reporting on the subject.)

I searched for “He beats me up all the time” and I got a list of posts on Quora, a few advice columnists, a few opinion pieces, and a helpful list of things “people also search for” that includes things like “My man beats me” and “Is it my fault he hit me”.

No-one expects Google to single-handedly solve this problem. But the information we receive shapes our behaviour, our norms, and, thus, our society. As a facilitator for the info – not to mention, a stop on people’s path to both perpetuate and escape violence – Google and all other search engines have a responsibility to do better.

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