“It’s the economy, stupid.” Actually, in the EU referendum debate the long-held political truism doesn’t appear to ring true.
Google has been analysing the internet searches people have been carrying out around Brexit for the level of interest in various referendum issues. And while the economy still ranks highly among the issues exercising potential voters, the data indicates what many have realised already realised anecdotally: immigration is now the prevailing issue.
Searches related to the economy dominated for much of March. There was then a dogfight between the economy and immigration for top-spot in April. However, the number of economy-related searches has since fallen back and as of 5 June it was the third-ranking issue behind Immigration and the NHS.
The Google Trends data also gives an indication of the strength of EU countries’ interest in the referendum, both within and outside the UK. Of the UK’s constituent countries, England shows the highest rate of engagement with the EU referendum debate, followed by Wales, then Scotland, with Northern Ireland in fourth place.
Outside the UK itself, the countries that registered the highest level of interest in the referendum are Ireland, Malta and Cyprus. Ireland has strong economic ties with the UK and a shared border with Northern Ireland while the latter are members of the Commonwealth. Citizens of all three countries who are resident in the UK can vote in the referendum.
The search engine also publishes information on the kinds of searches people have been carrying out in the run-up to the vote. This reveals that the most popular searches have been practical in nature.
People also have outstanding questions about the EU itself, including its composition: two of the top-five EU-related searches sought to discover whether Russia and Turkey are members of the bloc.
It has also analysed the frequency of EU-related searches that contain one of two search terms; “leave” or “stay” (Google did not count searches for “remain” as the number of searches for “stay” were significantly higher). The questions on the two lists are strikingly similar in the main.
A warning: the following map should not cause (further) anxiety to the Remain camp. The screenshot of an interactive map released by Google does not purport to show how voters will vote: it only shows where people are conducting more “leave”-related searches than “stay”-related queries.
Or, as Google puts it, the map “does not show sentiment and just shows search interest”.
For example, the questions “Why should we leave the EU?” and “Why should we stay in the EU” do not indicate which way the individual will vote on 23 June; they only show that people are engaging in the debate.
A second interactive map shows the number of “leave” searches relative to the number of “stay” searches.
To analyse the data that power the maps, Google identified searches that related to the EU and which also contained one of two phrases (“leave” or “stay” but not “remain”). It does not cover every search but rather a sample of search data (anonymised and aggregated to city level), which accounts for about a fifth of searches carried out.