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Net Neutrality, Kanye, and Hot Dogs

Quantifying the Impact of the Day of Action using Media Cloud and Google Trends

By: Jeff Fossett, Yuan Stevens, Levin Kim, Sam Daitzman, Zach Tan, Natalie Gyenes, Nikki Bourassa

Net Neutrality: More Exciting Than You Think

Whether you use the internet for cat photo storage or for cutting-edge cybersecurity research,  nondiscriminatory access to the internet significantly affects business, government and your everyday life. It’s so important that a relatively obscure concept known as “net neutrality” has rocketed into the spotlight in recent years.

If your eyes glazed over after reading the term net neutrality, you’re not alone: John Oliver would rather watch Caillou, a painfully bland children’s show featuring a bald Canadian child whose life is devoid of any incident, than hear people talk about net neutrality. And yet, talk about it, he did.

 

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So what is “net neutrality”?

Net neutrality is the idea or principle that internet service providers should treat all internet data as the same—regardless of its kind, source, or destination. For example, if you pay for a certain internet access speed, net neutrality holds that you would be able to access either Netflix or another video streaming competitor at the exact same speed: Netflix wouldn’t be able to pay your internet service provider so that their own website runs faster than websites of competitors. In other words, net neutrality prevents the prioritization of certain internet traffic.

Over the last several years, the internet’s classification as an information service has come into question, with some suggesting it should instead be considered a telecommunication service. This matters because US law imposes different regulatory oversight on each of these classifications. At the center of this debate is the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has the power to decide the internet’s classification.

We already know the impact of pro-net neutrality activism on the 2014 classification debates: through mobilization over digital networks and tools like parody and satire, proponents of net neutrality played a significant role in generating public interest in this issue. Ultimately, the FCC voted to reclassify the internet as a telecommunications service in 2015, declaring that “no one—whether government or corporate—should control free open access to the Internet.”

However, with a new presidential administration came new appointees to the FCC with a different view of how broadband should be classified. Deeply invested stakeholders of all kinds—civil society organizations, corporations, and everyday people—have been vocal about their support for the reclassification, but in April of this year, the FCC voted to undo its 2015 decision.

As a result, the Battle for the Net spearheaded a “Day of Action” in July 2017 that encouraged websites to display alerts or banners and apps to send push notifications, and asked all net neutrality supporters to share memes, gifs, and even cat photos that support net neutrality. Participating websites and apps displayed messages encouraging users to contact the FCC as well as share messages encouraging others to join them in supporting net neutrality.

So how has this renewed net neutrality activism impacted both public and media interest in this somewhat obscure issue? In particular, what was the effect of the July 2017 “Day of Action”? In this post, we use Google Trends and the media ecosystem analysis suite of tools, Media Cloud, to answer this question. As we’ll see, it turns out that the topic of net neutrality isn’t as boring as it may seem and is most definitely more exciting than the banalities a bald Canadian child’s everyday life. 

 

Net Neutrality Day of Action: Bigger than Bieber

Biebs upset because he is not as popular as net neutrality

Biebs upset because he is not as popular as net neutrality

The Day of Action involved numerous key tech players, but did it actually have a measurable impact on public awareness of net neutrality? To answer this question, we used Google Trends to look at search frequency for the phrase “net neutrality” over time.

We can think of Google search frequency as a rough proxy for public interest or awareness around the issue. Based on this understanding, the Day of Action appears to have driven a major increase in net neutrality awareness:

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As the plot shows, there have actually been three recent spikes of search interest around net neutrality, corresponding to (1) John Oliver’s recent segment on net neutrality, (2) the FCC’s vote to proceed on net neutrality rollbacks, and (3) the net neutrality Day of Action. Compared to baseline interest, the Oliver segment and the FCC vote both represented meaningful bumps of interest in net neutrality. However, it’s clear that the Day of Action generated the largest surge of interest by far, driving more than 4 times as much Google search interest as either of the previous events.

For context, this means that for at least a couple of days, “net neutrality” was a more popular search term than “Kanye West”, “Kim Kardashian”, and even “Justin Bieber”:

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In other words, a niche telecommunications policy issue was, at least momentarily, more popular on Google than some of the country’s biggest celebrities. Not bad. 

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However, it’s not clear that celebrities (who may maintain a relatively high level of sustained interest but likely only peak when they do something newsworthy) are the best point of comparison for a one-off event like the Day of Action.

So how does the Day of Action compare to other recent US cultural moments? One interesting reference point is the Nathan’s Famous Hotdog Eating Competition (also a one-off event), which occurred on July 4th, about a week and a half before the Day of Action. If we use the term “hot dog eating” as a proxy for interest in the Nathan’s event, we find that, at its peak, the Day of Action achieved a similar level of search frequency as the hotdog eating contest: 

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Although matching a hot dog eating contest might not seem like a big deal, readers should be mindful of the gluttonous appeal of Joey Chestnut scarfing a world record 72 hot dogs in a mere ten minutes—to claim his tenth mustard belt—when we in assess the cultural importance of this event:

Joey Chestnut, American hero

Joey Chestnut, American hero

On a more substantive note, we should also take this comparison with a grain of salt (or ketchup) for a number of reasons.

First, any comparison of this sort will be sensitive to the choice of proxy term (e.g. “hot dog eating”) that we associate with a given event. In particular, if there is only one main way to Google for net neutrality, but a wider range of ways to query for the hot dog eating contest (“nathan’s”, “hot dog contest” etc.), then the Day of Action will appear more popular on a single term-to-term comparison.  

Second, since Google search frequency reflects the normalized proportion of searches for a term in a period, any comparison across time periods can be affected by differences in the total volume of searches. For example, if fewer people are Googling on July 4th overall (e.g. because it’s a holiday), it will require fewer searches for a term to achieve a high proportion, thus making the hot dog eating contest look more prominent in comparison to the Day of Action.

Finally, “peak” interest may not be the best way to measure influence; for example, we see that “net neutrality” interest remained elevated for at least two days around the Day of Action, whereas “hot dog eating” interest was elevated primarily on July 4th alone; this could imply that the Day of Action ultimately reached a broader range of people.

Despite all these caveats, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Day of Action was successful in pulling net neutrality into the public eye on the order of a minor cultural moment (give-or-take) or a latent A-list celebrity. Again, not bad for a seemingly esoteric technology policy issue.

This Just In: Net Neutrality goes Mainstream!

While public awareness of net neutrality spiked on the Day of Action, how did the media respond? Media Cloud’s Dashboard tool proved useful here. Media Cloud collects data from a wide range of media sources by scraping RSS feeds, and allows us to count the number of sentences in different media categories that include a given phrase over time.

 

Using this data, we were able to compute the daily share of sentences including “net neutrality” over time in the US mainstream media (this includes sources like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal etc.), to assess coverage of the Day of Action: 

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As in the previous section, we see spikes of coverage primarily corresponding to the Oliver segment, the FCC’s vote to proceed on the net neutrality rollback, and the Day of Action.

Interestingly, we see that the volume of mainstream media coverage was more balanced across these three events than was Google search volume, which spiked disproportionately around the Day of Action. This suggests that even as the Day of Action was considered no more “newsworthy” than previous net neutrality events by the media, it may have had an outsized impact on public awareness. This makes sense, given that the Day of Action was an activist event aimed specifically at reaching the public. Also, the Day of Action was largely an online event (while the other events were not), and so it might thus be overrepresented in terms of Google searches, but not media coverage (where online/offline distinction is less relevant).

Setting aside comparisons between net neutrality events, we also might wonder: how much attention does the media give net neutrality in general? In particular, the plot above shows that mainstream net neutrality coverage maxed out with just below 0.2% of sentences containing the term. Is that a lot of coverage?

Finding a good reference point is tricky, but to get some intuition for what this number means, we can compare coverage of net neutrality to several key terms referencing recent US health care debate:

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For context, healthcare in the US was a fairly major news topic over this same time period, from May-July of 2017. House Republicans passed the American Health Care Act—the first formal attempt at Obamacare repeal—on May 4; the Senate rework of the bill (renamed the Better Care Reconciliation Act) was released on June 22nd, with debate and ultimately several delays of a Senate vote following.

This was a relatively big deal, given that healthcare was one of the most important issues to voters in 2016 according to a survey by Pew, and that Obamacare repeal has been a key campaign promise for Republicans since the law was passed in 2010. As the chart above shows, US mainstream media consistently devoted some share of coverage to health care over the full period, with spikes corresponding to key events, and absolute volume varying by which search term we look at (“obamacare” vs. “health care” vs. “healthcare”).

How did the Day of Action compare? As we can see, all of the health care terms max out higher than “net neutrality” at some point over the time window we considered. For example, the term “health care”—the most frequently used phrase—peaks on June 28th with about 1.1% of mainstream media sentences including the term, around 5 times as much coverage as “net neutrality” captured on the Day of Action.

Because a nice photo of Mitch McConnell is always fun

Because a nice photo of Mitch McConnell is always fun

This peak came at a height of legislative drama—as Mitch McConnell delayed a vote and then hustled to revise the Senate bill to appease holdouts—and so it’s not particularly surprising that health care coverage during this event substantially outpaced net neutrality coverage even on the Day of Action.

However, major healthcare events aside, the Day of Action seems to have propelled net neutrality to a level of coverage roughly commensurate with that of healthcare while the legislative process is ongoing but no major event is occurring. Given the political significance of the healthcare policy debate, to us this level of coverage signals mainstream relevance for net neutrality driven by the Day of Action, even if not prominence on the order of a major political/legislative event.

Breaking: Tech Media Cares More About Tech Issues

Another interesting question is: how did media interest vary across different types of media? In particular, did technology-focused news sources devote more coverage to net neutrality issues (as we might expect)?

To answer this, we compared coverage volume in Media Cloud’s “mainstream media” collection (shown above) to Media Cloud’s “tech blog” collection. The tech blog collection includes media sources like TechCrunch, Mashable, Gizmodo, and Engadget, as well as a number of smaller blogs:

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