[Note: a condensed version of this post appears on the Samara Blog]
A few weeks ago UK political scientist Phil Cowley undertook a simple project that used crowd-sourced information to explore what questions Brits had about their country’s cabinet. In other words, he went to Google, typed in “is [name of cabinet member]” and reported the top result suggested by autocomplete. Seeing that no one had yet replicated his findings for Canada, I figured I’d give it a try while watching some Olympic hockey.
Cowley’s experiment was a variant off of the “why is [US State]” meme, and some of his results are similarly bizarre or funny. More surprising though was that for a third of British cabinet members, the top suggestion was whether they were married. Also interesting was that for five cabinet members, the top suggestion was not actually an “is [name]” question. Instead Google substituted “who is [name]” indicating that people used the site to find out who the cabinet minister was, not things about them. There was also one cabinet member whose name produced no suggestions at all.
And so what of Canada? The top autocomplete suggestions for “is [name]” are listed below, and are separated into Ministers (senior cabinet members) and Ministers of State (junior members) according to the order of precedence. This was done since Cowley only covered the 21 senior ministers who make up the British cabinet (junior ministers are not considered cabinet members in the UK). For interest’s sake, I’ve also included Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. I did my best to achieve an unbiased result by signing out of Google and clearing all browser history, cookies, etc. before entering the names.
Interestingly, the results reveal a high level of interest in marital status for both Canadian and British googlers. Of those cabinet members for which the search phrase “is [name of cabinet member]” produced a specific question:
- 10 (out of 19) Canadian members turned up “married”
- 7 (out of 15) UK members did the same
Notably, the Canadian findings also reveal a significant gender imbalance, with “married?” being the first item for 86% of the women with a specific question, but just 33% of the men (comparisons with the UK aren’t possible because there are just two female senior ministers).
However, while Canadians seem to share Brits’ fascination with marital status, Canada has more cabinet members (19 out of 38, or exactly 50%) for which autcomplete fails to suggest a specific “is [name]” question. Of these 19:
- 16 brought up the suggestion “who is…” instead of “is [name]”
- 2 had no suggestions at all
- Kerry-Lynne Findlay oddly produced the suggestion “Kerry-Lynne Findlay.”
In contrast, only 38% of UK cabinet ministers yielded either “who is…“, no suggestion, or a mistaken suggestion. This difference can’t be explained by the inclusion of junior cabinet members, since they had the same proportion without a question as senior members. These results suggest that there may be fewer Canadian cabinet members with wide-scale public recognition. However, it is also entirely possible that there are simply fewer Canadians to Google cabinet members in the first place.
For the remaining cabinet ministers (i.e. those with specific “is [name]” questions other than “married?“), autocomplete offers up a mixed assortment. Several ministers have prompts that seem at least in part to be related to their cabinet roles. Specifically, Canadians are curious if Justice Minister Peter MacKay is a lawyer, if former Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear is a creationist, or if former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan is aboriginal. Regarding the Prime Minister, it seems most likely that Stephen Harper’s top suggestion, “jewish?“, results from his strong support of Israel. Similarly Foreign Minsiter John Baird’s prompt of “gay?” may reflect his international advocacy on gay rights.
And so what does all this tell us? Without knowing the factors considered in Google’s algorithms it’s impossible to know how representative the results are. It’s also quite likely that asking a different question, such as “does [name]“, would produce different results. However, overall I think it is fair to echo Cowley’s findings and conclude that like their British cousins, Canadians (or at least those Googling) are surprisingly interested in Cabinet ministers’ marital status. In contrast, Canadians seem to have far fewer questions relating to Ministers’ cabinet roles, and many ministers about which they have no questions at all.
1) Stephen Harper jewish?*
2) Bernard Valcourt who is
3) Rob Nicholson who is
4) Peter Mackay a lawyer?
5) Rona Ambrose married?
6) Diane Finley blind?
7) John Baird gay?
8) Tony Clement married?
9) Jim Flaherty ill?
10) Peter Van loan who is
11) Jason Kenney a virgin?
12) Gerry Ritz who is
13) Christian Paradis who is
14) James Moore married?
15) Denis Lebel who is
16) Leona Aglukkaq married?
17) Lisa Raitt married?
18) Gail Shea who is
19) Julian Fantino who is
20) Steven Blaney who is
21) Ed Fast who is
22) Kerry-Lynne Findlay Kerry-Lynne Findlay
23) Shelly Glover who is
24) Kellie Leitch married?
25) Chris Alexander who is
Ministers of State
26) Maxime Bernier who is
27) Lynne Yelich —
28) Gary Goodyear a creationist
29) Rob Moore who is
30) John Duncan aboriginal
31) Tim Uppal a cabinet minister
32) Alice Wong who is
33) Bal Gosal who is
34) Kevin Sorenson —
35) Pierre Poilievre married?
36) Candice Bergen married?**
37) Greg Rickford married?
38) Michelle Rempel married?
39) Thomas Mulcair a french citizen
40) Justin Trudeau running for prime minister
* When I initially checked “is Stephen Harper” on Google, it came back with “a good prime Minister?” However, when I checked it again a day later, it was “jewish?” I have no idea what explains the difference, but it perhaps may show that the suggestions can be easily changed..
** It is also possible that the suggestion for Candice Bergen is for the actress. However, a quick check revealed that “married?” is also the top suggestion for Candice Hoeppner, as Ms. Bergen used to be known, and so we’ll assume the response is valid.