New and evolving analytics tools give us a sharper picture of the Greek debt crisis than we've ever had before.
- By Kalev LeetaruKalev H. Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and a council member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government. He created the GDELT Project and focuses on big data and global society.
As one of the most tumultuous weeks of what was an already historically challenging year for Greece drew to a close, big data tools allowed us to assess how the world internalized and debated the issues in near-real time, offering an unprecedented look at the global response. Specifically, analyzing Google searches gives us a strong approximation of the kinds of questions about the Greek crisis that transfixed the world — the platform does, after all, account for 90 to 97 percent of all web searches in Europe and nearly 70 percent globally.
To take it a step further: Analyzing search trends among Greeks — the top questions they asked about the unfolding crisis — and comparing them against top search trends around the world gives us a more nuanced understanding of how different populations interpreted this phase of the crisis.
This is not the first time that Greece has threatened to hold a referendum on creditor-imposed austerity measures. Former Prime Minister George Papandreaou called for a similar referendum on October 31, 2011, with former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos noting at the time that the central question to be voted on was whether Greece should remain part of the European Union and continue to use the euro. While the government would cancel the referendum several days later, the mere possibility of a Grexit sparked considerable market turmoil over the following year, with the Financial Times summarizing 2012 as “A year in a word: Grexit”.
According to Google Trends data, the first measurable search activity for the Google Trends topic “Greek withdrawal from the eurozone” appeared from March to December 2012 with the country’s second bailout — peaking, albeit, at less than 1 percent of its present search volume. Searches resumed in late November, with demands for debt relief picking up in early 2015 as the nation headed towards a snap election. The number of searches climbed briefly in early February as EU talks collapsed, before leveling off again. Searches surged when Greece called for a referendum in late June, then again on July 5 when the results of the referendum became known, and finally again on July 12 as the marathon talks concluded.
On July 6, in the immediate aftermath of the Greek referendum, Google Trends showed that the five most common Greece-related questions searched on Google, worldwide, ranged from the most basic — What is happening in Greece? and What did Greece vote on? — to the more technical: What happens if Greece votes no? and How much does Greece owe?
Greeks, it seems, remained anxious through the process. On July 13, the morning following the marathon talks that produced the latest bailout deal, Google Trends showed that among Greeks themselves, the five most common questions searched on Google relating to their country varied from the existential — What does a Grexit mean? And What will happen in Greece? — to the reflective: What has the foreign press written on Greece?, to the prescriptive: What do the new measures say? and What should be voted by Wednesday? (the deadline for the Greek parliament to accept the new bailout deal).
What do these questions suggest? That even after negotiators agreed to a new bailout designed to prevent a Grexit, the possibility of Greece leaving the eurozone remained the top subject of curiosity, perhaps suggesting that its people remained skittish over the new deal. The third question shows that amid crisis, Greeks wanted to know how the rest of the world was covering their plight. We don’t know whether these searches focused on how Greece was being portrayed — as economic basket case? Feckless sellout? Overthrown in an economic coup? — or whether, perhaps, Greeks are so distrustful of their own press that they turn to foreign outlets for a more allegedly unbiased take. The fourth and fifth questions illustrate that Greeks were uncertain of what Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras’s government had agreed to or what it was voting on, reflecting the chaotic information environment within the country.
On the same day over in Germany, the search questions related to Greece were similar, but focused more on the negotiations’ broader impact on Europe: What does a Grexit mean for the euro?, Why would a Grexit be expensive?, Why would there be deflation in a Grexit?, Who supports Greece?, and Who benefits from the Greek crisis?
Beyond Greece and Germany, what countries were most interested in the events unfolding in Greece? The Google News Lab team created the animated map below showing each city worldwide that displayed a measurable volume (they don’t provide a definition) of Google searches about Greece between June 29 and July 6, 2015. Within Europe, the greatest centers of interest were, unsurprisingly, Greece, Germany, and Cyprus, but also Italy. In North America, Toronto and Ottawa seemed more interested in the crisis than most U.S. cities. Japan also seemed heavily preoccupied with the unfolding events.
With respect to the July 5 referendum itself, the following map, also by Google News Lab, ranks every country according to the percentage of their Google searches on that day that pertained to the referendum, from dark red (greatest interest) to light pink (least interest), to gray (not enough data). Mouse over each country to see its rank.
As the latest chapter of the Greek debt saga unfolded, China’s stock market also went into free fall. The map below (also by Google News Lab), color-codes each country by whether more searches from that country during the week of July 5 concerned the Greek debt crisis (dark blue), China’s stock market collapse (dark red), or a balance between the two (yellow). Most of Europe, Africa, and South America appear to have focused on Greece, while the rest of the world was drawn to China, illustrating its global economic importance.
Finally, turning to what the international media said about the crisis, the map below color codes each country based on the percentage of articles from news outlets from July 13 to 18, within that country that emphasized Greece, as monitored by the GDELT Project. Darker colors indicate a greater emphasis on Greece. Clicking on a country will display the first 50 matching articles from outlets in that country.
Note that the map below is not an exhaustive compilation of all news media from every country — GDELT may not pick up all outlets or articles. The GDELT algorithms responsible for identifying the article text may incorrectly include navigation bars or other unrelated text. Machine translations may incorrectly translate references to Greece, and outlets may be mistakenly placed in the wrong country.
But in spite of those limitations, the map below offers an idea of how each country of the world focused on the crisis. One memorable headline, in Estonia’s Pealinn, repeated Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Timo Soini famous comparison of the options of a bailout versus a Grexit as “the choice between the plague and cholera.”
Now, as news about Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras’s “secret plan” for a post-euro Greece tumbles out, we have the tools to glean the sort of questions that people — both around the world and in Greece — are asking, and at what volume. That gives researchers and policymakers alike the opportunity to respond with an unprecedented clarity, and in real-time. That should give some hope for Greece, as it continues its tentative steps towards solvency.
Photo Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images News