STANFORD, Calif. — Many registered Democrats who claimed they were suffering from mental distress after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election may have been embellishing a bit. A new study comparing online searches to public surveys show that a significant portion of Democrats were likely over-reporting their stress or mental health issues, but doing so as a means to back their party.
“Our research suggests that for many Democrats, expressing mental distress after the election was a form of partisan cheerleading,” write researchers Masha Krupenkin, David Rothschild, Shawndra Hill and Elad Yom-Tov in their findings. “Clearly, many Democrats were, and are, upset about the Republican victory in 2016; these findings do not invalidate those feelings but put their depth and related actions into perspective.”
This so-called “reverse” cheerleading occurs when a person misreports or exaggerates a condition publicly in order to show support for their affiliated group, or in this case, their political party. The authors say that a person’s actions in private reveal their true condition, however, and for the study, that can be determined by evaluating private search terms. In other words, a person who might describe suffering psychological distress on social media or to their friends, but doesn’t search for any type of help or relief, is more likely showing a form of reverse cheerleading.
For the study, the authors looked at more than 1 million Bing searches by Democrats, Republicans, and Spanish-Speaking Latinos from before and after the election. The searches were grouped based on previously answered questions by users who’d revealed their political affiliation, and by those who searched in Spanish. In particular, the authors looked for specific mental health-related search terms: depression, anxiety, stress, suicide/suicidal, and therapy. They also sought out searches for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.
Researchers then compared the findings to previously reported public surveys about how voters felt after the election.
“We find that while Democrats expressed serious mental distress about the election result on surveys, on average, the Democrats in our sample did not show an increase in mental health-related searches after the election,” the authors write. “Democrats were no more likely to search for stress relief, nor mental illness, nor treatment for mental illness before or after the election. This suggests that some Democrats reported mental health declines after Trump’s election as a form of reverse cheerleading, where partisans report evaluations that are more negative than their true beliefs to reflect badly on a president of the opposing party.”
On the other hand, they did see an uptick in searches for the search terms mentioned above among Spanish-speaking Latinos, which leads them to believe that while Democrats may have been reverse cheerleading, Latinos appeared to actually be suffering from actual distress.
Interestingly, the authors point to a 2016 Gallup poll that shows Republicans seem less interested in partisan cheerleading. That poll found Democrats reported higher levels of stress after the 2016 election, but Republicans didn’t. Yet after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, Republicans similarly showed no increase in stress, despite the election of the young Democrat.
The study is published in the journal SAGE Open.