On Wednesday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation about the ongoing crisis in Syria and Iraq, laying out, once again, the U.S. plan to degrade and destroy ISIL.
In his speech, the president took a moment to weigh in on a tangential debate surrounding ISIL — or, rather, the group formerly known as ISIL.
"At this moment,” Obama said; “the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain.” He continued:
“And one of those groups is ISIL – which calls itself the 'Islamic State.' Now, let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.”
In this case, the question of nomenclature is a loaded one. ISIL stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” while ISIS, which is often used to refer to the same group, stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” According to CBS, the difference is largely used to connote geographical scope:
“The ISIS camp thinks it’s Syria or greater Syria while the ISIL camp says it refers to the Levant, a larger geographic area that includes Syria, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and into parts of Turkey.”
Others, like Chuck Todd, think that the preference is political. From The Washington Post:
"Later, after the interview ended, Todd told his panel, ‘Obviously we refer to it at NBC News as ISIS. The Obama administration, president, says the word ISIL. The last S stands for Syria, the last L they don’t want to have stand for Syria.’ The insinuation is that the country Obama decided to stay out of last year is also his Voldemort, better left unnamed."
The group itself would prefer to simply be called "the Islamic State", which, as the president mentioned, seems to wrongly associate Islam with extremism and terrorism with statehood. The president’s remarks follow those of French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who made the same points and recommended instead use of the name “Daesh,” a transliteration of “ISIS/ISIL” in Arabic which is used in Syria.
Terminology, however, is also important for clarity’s sake — the situation in Syria and Iraq and the Middle East at large is confusing enough without parsing the language we use to talk about it. But, it turns out, we’re not really talking about it all that much.
Recent surveys point to a rise in ISIS/ISIL/Islamic Related fear among Americans. According to a CNN poll published this week, seven out of 10 Americans think ISIS can attack the US. According to the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of respondents said “The Islamic militant group in Iraq & Syria, known as ISIS,” poses a major threat to the US.
A look at Google trends, however, shows that overall, Americans aren’t searching for these ISIS, specifically.
Considering data taken from the past 90 days. Metrics show an increase in searches for “ISIS” in mid-June, when the group first started seizing Iraqi cities, and a spike in mid-August, when a video was released of the brutal beheading of James Foley. Of four terms used to describe the militant movement, ISIS is the most heavily searched:
Google explains that the darker the shade of the region on the map (below), the more popular the relevant search term is in that area. The figures listed next to each country don’t correlate to absolute search terms, but to the Search Volume Index. That figure, from a normalized data set presented on a 0-100 scale, shows the amount of searches done for that term, relative to all searches done on Google over time. Basically, in this case, the number shows that more Indonesian googlers are looking for “Isis” than googlers in any other region.
And US interest fades in ISIL, Islamic State and Daesh even more starkly:
This is not to say, however, that American fears aren’t real. The regional graphs look different when the search terms are more general.
The data could mean that Americans' professed fear of ISIS leads to broader searches using more general search terms — or that, thanks to the linguistic ping-pong, Americans have trouble remembering any of those names, and instead search for more general terms such as “islamist,” “extremist,” “terrorist,” and “jihadist”:
Here’s the regional breakdown:
Obama was criticized on Twitter for making the distinction between ISIS/ISIL and Islam, but in a climate that favors fear over information, the point is well worth making.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.