Confederate Monuments: “Trending”

I’m sitting in a training workshop today that’s focusing on Google tools. Sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and offered by my “home base,” the Jandoli School of Journalism at St. Bonaventure University, the workshop is covering various Google tools available to journalists and researchers. We started talking about “Google Trends,” which offers a look at the various search terms people are typing into Google at any given moment. Google then keeps track of this information, and reporters and researchers can look at that information over time.

As I tested out the Google Trends tool, I decided to use the search term “Confederate monuments” as my guinea pig. Here’s the result. 

Honestly, the results didn’t surprise me at all. The events in Charlottesville in August triggered a huge spike, but within days, interest dropped off again pretty steeply, pretty quickly. Interest didn’t go all the way back to the baseline–but almost (a “3” instead of a “0”).

But what this graph illustrated pretty clearly reflects a common frustration I’ve heard from Civil War buffs and historians of all sorts: no one particularly cared about Confederate monuments until the riots broke out. Then, literally, interest spiked overnight when Confederate monuments became the topic-du-jour.

Yes, there are smaller blips on April 23—related to the removal of monuments in New Orleans—and May 14, coinciding with the first white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. (Yes, there was a first one.)

I know some critics will blame all this sudden attention and subsequent controversy on “the media.” There’s an underlying flaw with that criticism, though. After all, media attention was the entire point of the rally and counter-rally. The coverage explosion demonstrates the old adage that those who live by the sword die by the sword (or, in this case, there’s probably a more clever adage we can invent since the pen is mightier than the sword….)

I do see a glimmer of hope in these statistics, though. During a panel discussion I participated in a few weeks ago for Genessee Community College in Batavia, NY, historian Michael Eula said that the passions involved in the controversy these days might be too overwhelming for any deliberate and well-intentioned discussions to counter. “[A]s much as it pains me to say this, there could be enough popular dissent out there regarding all these statues that no amount of discussion or legislation could change,” he said. Monuments might just literally get swept off their pedestals or vandalized to pieces, as seen in Durham, NC, and at Duke University. However, if Google Trends are to believed as a measure of what people are interested in, perhaps the wave has quieted. That might finally allow cooler heads to prevail so that any action—remove, relocate, recontextualize, or leave alone—can take place as the result of deliberate processes and not mob rule.