Google searches could be useful in predicting the number of domestic violence cases during isolating times, a new study finds.
Based in Italy, the study found a significant correlation between the number of calls to Italy’s national helpline and the number of online searches using keywords, such as domestic violence or femicide.
Researchers used Google Trends to collect three different sets of anonymous Google search data between March 2013 and June 2020. Based on this data, researchers suggest that tracking these searches could help predict potential threats of intimate partner violence (IPV) before and during a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
With this new methodology, instances such as the 120 per cent jump in calls that Italy’s anti-violence helpline received during the first wave of COVID-19, the study states, could be better predicted.
Selin Köksal, co-author and PhD candidate in public policy at Bocconi University, said at one point during Italy’s first lockdown, even women’s shelters had to shut their doors.
In this moment in time, Köksal said the internet may have been the only way for IPV victims to seek help.
“In a situation where there is some public health crisis like we experienced during the pandemic, the relevance of Google searches actually increases,” she said.
The power of the internet
The internet can be a powerful tool during times of crisis. According to the study, while reporting of IPV often drops off during a crisis, online connectivity often grows.
This is something that Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), is well aware of.
From the beginning of March 2020 to the end of March 2022, MacDougall said BWSS responded to over 100,000 requests for service from Canadians.
At around 4,000 requests per month, MacDougall said this is three times more calls than BWSS has ever responded to in its 43 years of operation.
In early 2020, MacDougall said her anti-violence organization began preparing for the effects of the impending lockdown on victims of IPV, after observing China’s experience with this same issue.
She said her organization worked proactively to try to minimize the pandemic’s isolating effects as it spread to Canada.
“What we did in early March was begin to raise awareness about what was coming and try to put in place resources for victims and survivors in advance of the lockdown and quarantine measures,” she said.
These resources included using the “power of the internet” to spread the word.
From social media campaigns to news articles to incorporating all the right keywords into their website so it would appear in Google searches, such as those analyzed in the Italian study.
“We sustained [this campaigning] for months… and that was a game changer,” MacDougall said. “That was necessary in order to draw attention to the problem.”
In April 2020, just after the pandemic began spreading across Canada, 26 women and girls were killed by violence in Canada, according to data from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. That month recorded the highest number of deaths in 2020, up 10 per cent from January 2020.
By working to spread the word about their services through radio, news, magazines and social media, MacDougall said BWSS tried to get word to everybody who might be in need of support.
“Every time there was a mainstream media story [featuring BWSS], calls to our crisis line went up,” MacDougall said.
MacDougall said BWSS even worked on trying to get cellphones into the hands of IPV victims across B.C. so they could access online resources.
Gaps in online services
However, even with organizations such as BWSS working tirelessly to reach people online, Köksal said there’s a “digital divide” that can make it difficult for certain populations to get help.
Köksal said the keywords observed in the study as predictors of an increase in helpline calls were mostly those typically used by people with a high degree of education.
“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,” Köksal said.
To help close the divide, she said policymakers should promote internet and social media literacy lessons in communities with a lower socio-economic status.
While Köksal envisions widespread internet literacy education as a long-term solution, she said there’s another solution she'd like to see happen sooner.
In February, the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the U.S. partnered with Google. Now, whenever somebody in the States Googles anything related to domestic violence, a box appears immediately at the top of their search results with the contact information for the hotline.
Köksal said she hopes their study encourages the implementation of this service internationally.
Even with the study’s heavy focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, Köksal said the research they did before 2020 proves the recommendations made in the study are always applicable.
“Even in the period where there is no public health crisis… Google services are [providing the] potential to understand the severity of domestic violence happening in that population,” she said.
In Canada, MacDougall said the number of requests for services received by BWSS has plateaued, but numbers are still higher than they were pre-pandemic.
“The violence continues,” MacDougall said, noting BWSS is still running its 24-hour helpline — an extended service it began offering during the pandemic.
“We continue to have our foot, in a metaphorical way, on the gas. We haven't let up at all.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, help is available. You can call the Victim Safety Unit toll free at 1-800-563-0808 or one of the many resources on this government list.