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Online Trends

Published June 7th 2019

Facts, Fictions, and How We Talk About the End of the World Online

A very cheerful exploration of how the end of days is discussed online, from robot uprising and alien invasion through to nuclear war and environmental disaster

We’ve been covering some pretty dark subject matter on Brandwatch React recently.

We just looked at all the items and industries being stamped out by murderous millennials (sorry, pet food and dairy).

And then we examined how the way we talk about death matches up with actual causes of death (it doesn’t – there is a large disconnect between what we worry about online and what will most likely kill us).

So, we thought, why not go for a trifecta of depressing subjects? Why not look at the end of the world?

Some background

I’ve had a Brandwatch Analytics query running for two years that picks up public online mentions of the apocalypse, armageddon, and the end of the world. I knew that one day I would look into it properly, to see what people were talking about (both based on popular fictional stories and grounded in science). And today that day came.

So, I took my two years worth of mentions (1,081,146 total, gathered between May 2017 and May 2019), and I started to split them out.

How will the world end?

To break out the data, I looked at what was rising up within topic clouds to see the main drivers of conversation, as well as searching for popular theories and tropes around the end of the world.

My intention wasn’t necessarily to find what people thought would cause the end of the world, since there’s so much chat about horror and sci-fi stories (American Horror Story’s most recent season is literally called ‘Apocalypse’). But I was keen to see how more scientific theories mixed with the mystical.

With that in mind, check out the following breakdown.

Discuss.

Fiction

Zombies, zombies, zombies

As you can see, zombies dominate. As a culture, we are obsessed with them.

If we’re not talking about them in The Walking Dead, we’re talking about how we might prepare for a zombie apocalypse and who we’d want on our team of survivors.

If you thought the horror genre had squeezed every last drop of silver screen life out of zombies (pun intended), you might be mistaken. Interest in zombies is still going strong.

Robots

I’m putting both robots and aliens under the fiction banner simply because robot uprisings and alien invasions (for now) reside in the sci-fi genre.

Within the robot conversation, the show Westworld (featuring robotic humans that are, well, very human) as well as Elon Musk (who’s had a lot to say in this area) were both key themes. Meanwhile, I found a lot of debate on whether a ‘robotic apocalypse’ is or isn’t nigh. There’s plenty of content like the following, which ridicules robotic advances.

That said, there’s also a huge amount of fear both around the growing intelligence of machines and their ability to remove the need for humans in different areas of the work force.

Aliens

Moving on to aliens, I was interested to see that conversation around aliens and the apocalypse had the highest proportion of chatter on blogs and forums where there’s a huge amount of discussion around sci-fi.

That said, I chose this tweet to summarize the alien invasion conversation because it leads us nicely into the next section:

Side note: Comets, meteors and asteroids did get a lot of mentions around the end of the world, but not quite enough to get into the top six outlined in this post.

Facts

This section is about conversation that relates more to the real world (as in, there’s not so much chatter about Doctor Who, Westworld, and the Walking Dead).

Nuclear war

The largest spike in general conversation around this was in August 2017, when lots of people were discussing the relationship between America and North Korea.

Numbers have generally dropped more recently, although it remains a pretty consistent topic.

Man-made environmental disaster

This topic has seen a massive boost in the last couple of months, and with so many protests going on around the world it’s really no surprise.

There are many, many aspects to this topic (it could be a blog post in itself) so I’ll save that for another time.

Politics and politicians

In a politically charged environment, I expected political figures and ideologies to make up a chunk of this conversation, but I was surprised by the volume.

Here’s what those conversations look like, visualized using the topic wheel in Brandwatch Analytics.

As you can see, Brexit (specifically a no-deal Brexit) is often discussed in ‘end of the world’ terms.

But it’s the US politics that dominate the apocalypse conversations in comparison.

Conclusions

The ‘end of the world’ conversation is a real mix of fantasy and current affairs, mixed up with a lot of hyperbole.

There’s no real upward trend in mentions of a coming apocalypse so, if human chatter is anything to go by, there’s no need to panic.

That said, with real-world issues like automation and climate change and political friction not going away any time soon, perhaps my Brandwatch Signal for spikes in ‘end of the world’ mention volume will start filling up my inbox imminently.

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