Tracking National Attention toward Mass Shootings with Google Trends Data

Many often lament that attention toward mass shootings and subsequent debate they engender is fleeting. In a matter of a week, if not days, national discussion about the tragedy itself as well as measures to prevent future ones (largely centered around gun control) quickly evaporate. However, with the most recent mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, there does seem to be evidence of a different trajectory.

To capture “national attention” toward this mass shooting, I used Google Trends data to track web search frequencies for two sets of searches: “gun control” and the name of the location of the mass shooting. In addition to doing this for Stoneman Douglas, I gathered similar data (using the gtrendsR R package) for all other mass shootings that were in the top 10 most deadliest–including Stoneman Douglas, this amounted to seven mass shootings.

Below are two graphs showing the trajectories for both search terms. For each graph, search volume is placed on a 0-100 scale (where 100 represents the highest volume). First, I show searches for gun control seven days before and six days after each of the seven mass shootings:


Each event follows a very similar path. Before Stoneman Douglas, four of the six saw a spike in public discussion about gun control followed by a dramatic decline into obscurity. The trends following the Sandy Hook and San Bernardino diverged from this pattern, as even about a week after these shootings, debate about gun control persisted. The Stoneman Douglas shooting has followed the trajectory of these latter two events: after falling a bit from its peak, gun control debate–as measured by Google searches, which is a serviceable but not perfect proxy–has persisted in the following week. Moreover, six days out, attention toward gun control in the aftermath of Stoneman Douglas eclipsed that after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.

A similarly distinctive trend for Stoneman Douglas materializes in the following graph as well, which plots web searches for the shooting location name in the two weeks following the shooting:


In nearly every case, the two-week aftermath saw the shooting quickly fall off the radar. In most cases, it took just a matter of days for public attention to dissipate. Interestingly, for the five days after this most shooting, it seemed like Stoneman Douglas was following this same trajectory. But within the last few days (Days 6, 7, and 8 on the graph), attention toward the Stoneman Douglas shooting has reversed its descent to obscurity, and instead has started to receive renewed attention (now on an upward trend). The distinctive post-tragedy trajectory for Stoneman Douglas–maintaining national attention and spurring gun control debate more than usual–is fairly clear by now, and perhaps owes to the role that the school’s students have played at the center of the national debate on gun control in the week following the tragedy.

Tracking National Attention toward Mass Shootings with Google Trends Data

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