Geoff Dancy

UTM researcher reveals what search engine results can tell us about the global human rights movement

Kristy Strauss

When Geoff Dancy wanted to research where people are most interested in human rights, he fully expected it would come from countries in the Global North – such as the United States and Canada.  

But when he and his colleague delved deeper into the topic, they discovered the total opposite was true: it is those in the Global South, who regularly face suffering and violence at the hands of their government, who consistently search online for information about human rights.  

“Our expectations were completely flipped on their head,” says Dancy, an associate professor at University of Toronto Mississauga’s Department of Political Science. “It goes against this academic narrative that exists right now that human rights aren’t from, and don’t resonate in, the Global South. We found the exact opposite of that.” 

Dancy, along with his colleague Christopher Fariss from the University of Michigan, detail their findings in their paper "The Global Resonance of Human Rights: What Google Trends Can Tell Us," which was recently published in The American Political Science Review

As part of their research, Dancy and Fariss used a tool called Google Trends, which collects aggregated data on what people are searching for on Google. They examined Google searches containing the term “human rights” from 109 countries, across five languages, over five years between 2015 and 2019.  

As they analyzed the data, they discovered that human rights interest was more pronounced in the Global South – for example, countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. 

For the English language, Dancy and Fariss found that the top three countries that searched for “human rights” the most were Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. In the Spanish language group, the top four searchers were Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico.  

“The biggest correlation of searching for human rights is political violence. If you live in a place where the government is attacking its citizens, then you see more searches for human rights,” he says. 

As an example, he points to Uganda, which has passed stringent anti-LGBTQ+ laws that subject people to lifetime imprisonment or, more recently, the death penalty for being openly gay.  

“People are searching for human rights because they want to fight back against that,” Dancy says. 

Activists march with a rainbow flag during a Pride rally in Uganda in 2015
Ugandan activists gathered for a Pride rally in 2015 to mark a temporary loosening of stringent anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, punishable by a jail sentence. Aof 2023, legislation imposes the death penalty for same-sex acts. (Photo by Isaac Kasamani /AFP via Getty Images)

In Global North countries, the researchers discovered a different pattern. The United States, which did not make the top 12 searchers, scored high for one week in the summer of 2018 when there was extensive media coverage of family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.  

While Dancy notes that 2021 falls outside of the study’s time period, he has since discovered a similar pattern in Canada. In September 2021, Google searches for human rights spiked in Canada – which coincides with major news events at the time such as the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as well as vaccine mandates. 

“In the Global North, they get very brief and ‘faddish’ interest in human rights and then it goes away,” he says. “But in the Global South, people are constantly searching for human rights. There aren’t spikes and troughs, there are just steady searches.” 

He adds that the research challenges scholars who claim that people are “moving on” from concepts around human rights, and that it’s becoming less “popular.” 

“There are a number of scholars who argue that human rights isn’t getting the job done – it isn’t going far enough to make change, and so people will lose interest in human rights as a global movement,” he says. “(But) people in the Global South very much want human rights . . . and find them to be a useful tool still. In some ways, this (research) is a reclamation of the importance of the human rights movement around the world.”