Preliminary Responses to Las Vegas Terror Attack

(Abby S. and Ryan C.)–


Whenever a tragedy of the proportions of Monday’s terrible incident in Las Vegas occurs, it swiftly becomes framed in broader narratives that accord with the interests of the framers. An event as disruptive as a mass shooting will clearly trigger multiple political responses: two of the most salient are fears of terrorism (with the attendant fears of immigrants, foreigners, and Muslims) and renewed interest in gun control, whether for or against. A look at Google searches in the hours after the attacks gives an honest snapshot of the public’s gut reactions to the attacks.

It bears mentioning that the four terror attacks in 2017 that resulted in 100+ casualties were located in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, but that doesn’t destabilize the muslim-vs-nonmuslim dichotomy that is entrenched in mainstream Western discourse. A corollary is that violence directed at the public is almost invariably associated with Islam, and that fears of Muslims, Islam, and terrorism are linked to xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment. To examine this hypothesis partly, I used Google Trends to compare the level of searches for terms relating to these themes: “Islam,” “Muslim”, and “Immigration” as they contrasted with “Las Vegas Terror” and “Gun Control”. My hypothesis is that there will be a spike in searches of Muslim and Islam in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy due to a number of factors:

  1. entrenched islamophobia
  2. right wing propaganda and
  3. ISIS’ unsubstantiated claim of responsibility.


Please look here to get the necessary tools to interpret these data for yourself . You may obviously also look at google trends directly to see the charts. Here, I’ve tried to make them cleaner and make the trends more discernable, and have added lines to mark important events as the tragedy unfurled.

Note: The Time is in GMT (7 hours ahead of Pacific Time) and the data are limited to searches in the United States. Moreover, this is still early in the week, and reactions to the event will certainly change as new developments unfold. That said, for the purposes of seeing how interest in Islam and Muslims jumps up in the aftermath of this tragedy, we can make certain limited inferences.

Preliminary Results:

[Image Description: A graph marking the popularity of the search terms “Gun control,” “Immigration,” “Islam,” “Las Vegas Terror,” and “Muslim” over time. An analysis of the graph continues in the text below.]
To see an interactive version of the above chart, click here. *To see how ‘Search Interest’ is defined, look here.

A couple of trends jump out immediately:

  1. Searches for the term “Muslim” spiked twice, first over the four hours after the attack, then sharply in the hour after ISIS (falsely) claimed responsibility (the claim was generally dismissed by the media, which probably explains the decline during the following day). In between, searches declined to slightly higher than the pre-attack level, presumably as people read media reports that made no mention of Muslim attackers. Remarkably, the first spike, which had no basis in mainstream media reports, was almost as large as the second, which was clearly triggered by the initial media reports that ISIS had claimed responsibility. Two factors likely explain this initial spike:
    1. people saw reports of an attack and, without evidence, assumed or suspected that the attackers were Muslim;
    2. some of these initial searches may reflect the spread of rumors and false/speculative early reports on social media and unreliable news sources (“fake news”).
  2. Searches for “Immigration” declined somewhat in the immediate hours after the attack, but then rose substantially above pre-attack levels in the hours before and after ISIS claimed responsibility. We suspect that the initial dip is explained by people shifting their attention away from relevant political issues as they focus on the news of the attack. But as people have time to reflect and process the news of the attack, interest in immigration rises significantly. The implication: even without evidence of a connection to immigration or immigrants, news of a mass shooting attack automatically prompts reflections in immigration.
  3. Eventually, as more coherent and factual reports of the incident emerged, the thorny debate over gun-control started gaining traction, displacing the initial, knee-jerk characterization of the event as Islamic terrorism.

Additionally, the vigor with which a lot of people seem to want to cast this as an act of Islamic violence is alarming but unsurprising in the political climate of the Status Quo.

[Image Description: A chart showing the popularity of five search terms, from most to least popular. The terms are “vegas muslim,” “paddock muslim,” “paddock,” “stephen paddock muslim,” “shooter muslim.”]
On another level, it appears that people have been actively engaging with what distinguishes a ‘terrorist’ from a ‘shooter’ and/or a ‘lone wolf’, as a lot of people seem to be googling the definition of a terrorist. This terrible tragedy has triggered a debate in portions of the mainstream media about who gets classified as a terrorist and what crime gets deemed as terrorism. But the data also show how, in the minds of ordinary people, the conventional, allegedly biased split between terrorist and lone-wolf/shooter is more tenuous than we initially assumed.

Please email for more information about methodology and/or if you want an interactive graph. We will be posting updates to this issue.