What can Google trends tell us about whether the news media drive interest in drugs?

There’s an interesting piece about whether media interest in ‘legal highs’ contributes to the likely use of those drugs over on the VICE website.

They take the recent story that the Mail in Sunday, and other news media, ran about the drug salvia being available on Amazon as a case study and say:

As soon as the article was published (in May 2013), Google searches for “salvia amazon” shot up astronomically. Whether any of those searches led to sales of salvia is impossible to tell, but the Mail’s piece generated a significant amount of publicity for the drug.

And they’re right as the graph below shows, there has been a spike of people searching Google using that term.

salvia amazon

It’s important to note that what Google are showing is relative interest rather than the absolute number of searches – so 100 represents the peak interest not that only 100 people searched.

What the Vice story doesn’t make clear is that it appears that almost all of the searches come from the USA, where I believe the Mail’s website has a very large following.

I thought it might be interesting to look at how these spikes, which I don’t doubt are caused by media interest, compare to other search terms.  

The first thing I did was remove the reference to Amazon and as you can see the spike disappears, dwarfed by events like the reporting on a celebrity’s apparent problems.



Then limiting the search to the UK, where once again interest in the life and reported troubles of a celeb led to the biggest search spike.

salvia uk

Then I added searches for other drugs and in the case of mephedrone added one of the nicknames used (‘meow meow’).

google searches

As you can see the level of interest – if we’re judging it by search terms – for ‘legal highs’ is much lower than for the more widely used drugs (cannabis and cocaine), but that the sustained media debate around the last government’s response to mephedrone did manage to raise interest in the drug to those levels for a short period.

As Vice note, what this data doesn’t tell us is anything about the motivation of those using the search terms.

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