Cruising the Wall Street Journal this morning, I was a little confused to see a headline suggesting that IMDB— the International Movie Data Base, a website to learn more about your favorite movies and actors— was implicated in a scandal at the highest level of Malaysian politics. As interesting as that story would be (I envisioned the intrigue and collusion at the palace in Kuala Lumpur to cut references to the Prime Minister of Malaysia from the popular comedy, Zoolander (see video below)—in fact, in many broadcasts this has already been done), in actuality, the story related to 1Malaysia Development Bhd with its strikingly similar acronym 1MDB (vs. IMDB). Briefly, there are allegations that 1MDB, a Malaysian state investment fund, funneled ~$700 million into the personal bank account of Prime Minister Najib Razak— whose party has ruled since independence in 1957. This, however, was not what I was presently interested in.
Is IMDB trending because of 1MDB?
It is a very real fear, if not one with a relatively negligible probability, that a person sharing your name will become famous or notorious. In the case of IMDB, and in a world of snap judgments and social media, I was curious if intrepid citizens were blowing the whistle on their favorite movie database. While there had been rumblings of the scandal mainly in the local Malaysian media in June, the story really gained traction internationally over the past week. I was curious, did the public’s desire to learn more about 1MDB lead to a spike in Google searches for IMDB in Southeast Asia?
Google Trends, which looks at relative search volume over time, does not give us any solitary or obviously related spikes for IMDB searches. However, it is possible that the volatility in the Southeast Asian charts, relative to the recurring day/night fluctuations of the U.S. chart, are indicative of erroneous searches. That is, rather than day highs and night lulls, in Southeast Asia, where people are more interested in the scandal, local media reports are causing unusual 'bumps' in the data. To the contrary, and while I would suspect that IMDB has fairly stable daily Internet traffic even in countries with fewer regular users, the volatility could be related to trendy film releases and movie star gossip.
What about confusion on Twitter and in local papers?
The Strait Times— Singapore’s highest-selling newspaper— was hip to the similarity, displaying this tweet and list of movie title gags with an apology to IMDB:
Murray Hiebert, the Chair for Southeast Asian studies at the prestigious Washington think-tank CSIS, had the following tweet yesterday:
A quick surf of Twitter reveals that Mr. Hiebert is not alone in his error—and a more formal examination of Twitter trends would likely find a substantial bounce for IMDB.
While IMDB hasn’t released a press release or issued a (hopefully comical) Twitter clarification, they may yet do so if the 1MDB continues to attract headline news.
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