, Volume 56, Issue 3, pp 231–240 | Cite as

Using Google and Twitter to Measure, Validate and Understand Views about Religion across Africa

  • Amy AdamczykEmail author
  • Gary LaFree
  • Maria Barrera-Vilert
Symposium: New Measures, New Ideas


Researchers typically use social surveys or censuses to examine attitudes and behaviors across nations. While useful for understanding cross-national differences, they are expensive to collect, include only a limited number of issues and countries, and are not very time sensitive. Many countries across the world now have residents who regularly use Twitter and Google, and these internet platforms are increasingly making data on the country-level number of tweets and google searches available for analysis. While there are a lot of challenges with these data, we examine some of the potential benefits. Specifically, our study assesses the extent to which cross-national social media and survey measures related to religious expression are related. Focusing on Africa, where surveys are particularly difficult to administer, and religious expression, which is quite common across the continent, is high, we find that our religion-related measures derived from google searches correspond particularly well with traditional social science measures. We then look at how all three sets of measures explain terrorism, health-related issues, and the number of Christian and Muslim official holidays within the country. We find that the measures derived from Google almost always perform as well, if not better, than the traditional social science measures. We discuss how internet data may be able to offer reliable and time-sensitive measures for examining differences across nations and for better understanding a range of issues in Africa.


Religion Africa Social media Research Cross-national 


Further Reading

  1. Adamczyk, A. 2011. “The indirect result of religious norms and practices: Explaining Islam’s role in limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS.” (15–31) in Religion and Social Problems, edited by T. Hjelm. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Adamczyk, A., & Hayes, B. E. 2012. Religion and sexual behaviors understanding the influence of Islamic cultures and religious affiliation for explaining sex outside of marriage. American Sociological Review, 77(5), 723–746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Anon. 2018. Digital in 2018: World’s internet users pass the 4 billion mark. We are social UK. Retrieved September 24, 2018 from Accesed 24 Sept 2018.
  4. Ariño, A. 2016. The Power of Twitter in Africa. IESE Business School. Retrieved from: September October 10th 2018.
  5. Bailey, R. C., Neema, S., & Othieno, R. 1999. Sexual behaviors and other HIV risk factors in circumcised and uncircumcised men in Uganda. Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, 22(3), 294–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Buntain, C., McGrath, E., Golbeck, J., & LaFree, G. 2016. Comparing social media and traditional surveys around the Boston Marathon bombing. In # microposts (pp. 34–41).Google Scholar
  7. Carlson, K. D., & Herdman, A. O. 2012. Understanding the impact of convergent validity on research results. Organizational Research Methods, 15(1), 17–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chae, D. H., Clouston, S., Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Kramer, M., Cooper, H. L., Wilson, S., Stephens-Davidowitz, S., Gold, R., & Link, B. G. 2015. Association between an internet-based measure of area racism and black mortality edited by H. Zeeb. PloS one, 10(4), e0122963.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Holmes, A. J., & Anderson, K. 2017. Convergence in national alcohol consumption patterns: New global indicators. Journal of Wine Economics, 12(2), 117–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. How Many People Use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in South Africa. 2017. BusinessTech. Retrieved from: Accessed 10 Oct 2018.
  11. Internet Stats in Africa. 2018. Retrieved September 2018 from: Accessed 10 Oct 2018.
  12. LaFree, G., Dugan, L., & Miller, E. 2015. Putting terrorism in context: Lessons from the global terrorism database. Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Lazer, D., & Radford, J. 2017. Data ex machina: Introduction to big data. Annual Review of Sociology, 43, 19–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. MacInnis, C. C., & Hodson, G. 2015. Do American states with more religious or conservative populations search more for sexual content on Google? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(1), 137–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Makin, D. A., & Morczek, A. L. 2015. The dark side of internet searches: A macro level assessment of rape culture. International Journal of Cyber Criminology, 9(1), 1.Google Scholar
  16. Marshall, M. G. 2018. Major episodes of political violence (MEPV) and conflict regions, 1946–2016. Center for Systemic Peace. Retrieved September 28, 2018 from
  17. Mbulaiteye, S. M., Ruberantwari, A., Nakiyingi, J. S., Carpenter, L. M., Kamali, A., & Whitworth, J. A. G. 2000. Alcohol and HIV: A study among sexually active adults in rural Southwest Uganda. International journal of epidemiology, 29(5), 911–915.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Mellon, J. 2014. Internet search data and issue salience: The properties of Google trends as a measure of issue salience. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties, 24(1), 45–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Morris, B. J., Wamai, R. G., Henebeng, E. B., Tobian, A. A., Klausner, J. D., Banerjee, J., & Hankins, C. A. 2016. Estimation of country-specific and global prevalence of male circumcision. Population Health Metrics, 14(1), 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. O'Connor, B., Balasubramanyan, R., Routledge, B. R., & Smith, N. A. 2010. From tweets to polls: Linking text sentiment to public opinion time series. Icwsm, 11(122–129), 1–2.Google Scholar
  21. Pew Research Center. 2012. The global religious landscape. Retrieved from: Accessed 10 Oct 2018.
  22. Piazza, J. A. 2009. Is Islamist terrorism more dangerous? An empirical study of group ideology, organization, and goal structure. Terrorism and Political Violence, 21(1), 62–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Rosenthal, E. 2007, July 27. Quiet. Libya has an AIDS problem. The New York Times. Retrieved from: Accessed 12 Sept 2018.
  24. Salganik, M. J. 2017. Bit by bit: Social research in the digital age. Princeton University PressGoogle Scholar
  25. Sayre, B., Bode, L., Shah, D., Wilcox, D., & Shah, C. 2010. Agenda setting in a digital age: Tracking attention to California proposition 8 in social media, online news and conventional news. Policy & Internet, 2(2), 7–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Scheitle, C. P. 2011. Google's insights for search: A note evaluating the use of search engine data in social research. Social Science Quarterly, 92(1), 285–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Stephens-Davidowitz, S., & Pabon, A. 2017. Everybody lies: Big data, new data, and what the internet can tell us about who we really are. New York:HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  28. Swearingen, C. D., & Ripberger, J. T. 2014. Google insights and US senate elections: Does search traffic provide a valid measure of public attention to political candidates? Social Science Quarterly, 95(3), 882–893.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Tumasjan, A., Sprenger, T. O., Sandner, P. G., & Welpe, I. M. 2010. Predicting elections with twitter: What 140 characters reveal about political sentiment. Icwsm, 10(1), 178–185.Google Scholar
  30. UNAIDS 2007. Male circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability. Geneva:UNAIDS.Google Scholar
  31. UNAIDS. 2017. State of the Aids epidemic report. Retrieved from: Accessed 12 Sept 2018.
  32. Whitehead, A. L., & Perry, S. L. 2018. Unbuckling the Bible Belt: A state-level analysis of religious factors and Google searches for porn. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 273–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. World Health Organization Global Health Observatory Data Repository. 2012. Alcohol-Attributable Fractions, All-Cause Deaths (%). Retrieved from: Accessed 12 Sept 2018.
  34. World Health Organization Global Health Observatory Data Repository. 2018. Number of people (all ages) living with HIV. Estimates per country. Retrieved from: Accessed 12 Sept 2018.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amy Adamczyk
    • 1
    Email author
  • Gary LaFree
    • 2
  • Maria Barrera-Vilert
    • 1
  1. 1.John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate CenterCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.START CenterUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations