Google searches are an effective tool to track and predict domestic violence, especially in times of crisis, such as the period that followed the Covid-19 outbreak, suggests a research.
When the Covid pandemic broke out and countries experienced a strict lockdown, news stories started reporting anecdotal evidence about women forced to live under the same roof with abusive partners.
A team of Italian researchers, including from Bocconi University in Milan, analysed the relations between Google searches for nine domestic violence-related keywords on one hand, and calls to the Italian domestic violence helpline 1522 and to the emergency number 112 in Lombardy.
The selected keywords were: 1522, abuse, home & abuse, home & rape, femicide, rape, domestic violence, gender-based violence, and sexual violence.
The idea underlying the study is that the Internet — and Google in particular — may offer a medium to anonymously voice concerns about abusive partners and collect relevant information, the team wrote in the paper published in the European Journal of Population.
Calls to the helpline measure potential risk of experiencing domestic violence, while calls to the emergency number measure actual violence.
The frequency of queries for the keywords were consistently positively and significantly correlated with helpline calls across the whole investigated time period (2013-2020), with a time lag between search and call of around one week.
But their predictive power increased after the Covid-19 outbreak, when traditional help mechanisms became harder to reach.
The team also observed a worrying socio-economic divide.
“Forecasts proved more reliable among high socio-economic status populations because they are better than other socioeconomic strata at googling effectively in this context,” said Selin Koksal, a doctoral candidate in Public Policy at Bocconi.
“It may be the case that individuals with lower socio-economic status use dialect or less targeted keywords, which could prevent them from reaching accurate online resources for seeking help,” Koksal added.
The study advises policymakers to track domestic violence-related searches and to accordingly intensify their support activities, both reinforcing services where and when searches become more frequent and raising awareness through the media.
“They could also intervene in favour of disadvantaged people,” Koksal said, “by promoting internet literacy and, in the short run, convincing Google to show domestic violence support services among the top results, as it has done in the US.”