Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

How the Media Convinces Us ‘The People Support It’ – Mass Surveillance and Polls

with 4 comments

[Updated Below]

[Update II: 6-13-13]

On Sunday, I noticed (and tweeted) that Steve Kornacki kept saying that Americans strongly supported all manner of spying on Americans in the name of terror, moving quickly from blanket statements to anecdotes about what he was hearing from people. Of course, to make such a claim requires more than anecdote. Absent polling you are just guessing (or projecting your own onto the public).  That said, presuming there is public ‘support’ for policies that enjoy strong elite support is a standard element of democratic efficiency. Nor was Kornacki alone. Such claims had been ubiquitous.

It is true that a Democratic Administration, despite challenging many Bush-era practices when it came to these issues, had embraced much of the same. While jettisoning the term War of Terror, it has continued to engage in scare tactics which vastly over inflate the dangers of terrorism (pdf). Given what we know about the dynamics of public opinion, it should have been obvious that more Democratic voters were going to move towards the pro-surveillance position since the Bush-era. Elite discourse influences poll results. (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the so-called war on terror).

Beyond that, I’d argue that polls covered in the media, in terms of how the questions are written, what sorts of things are not asked about, and how they are interpreted, tend to reinforce the status quo. We know that journalists typically reflect the positions of political elites.  What they take for granted, the media does too. What they disagree on, the media treats in a sort of ‘he said, he said’ framework – ‘global warming, opinions differ.’  What they find outlandish and off the wall is treated as evidence of mental illness. So whether it’s the framing of the questions, or their interpretation, we should expect polling to hew pretty closely to elite perspectives. To do otherwise is to risk ‘objectivity’ and invite accusations of being ‘political’.

Monday, a new poll by Washington Post-Pew Research Center illustrated all of this, as did the coverage in the Post (Most Americans back NSA tracking phone records, prioritize probes over privacy).

From the Post (my emphases):

A large majority of Americans say the federal government should focus on investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised, and most support the blanket tracking of telephone records in an effort to uncover terrorist activity, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll.

Fully 45 percent of all Americans say the government should be able to go further than it is, saying that it should be able to monitor everyone’s online activity if doing so would prevent terrorist attacks. A slender majority, 52 percent, say no such broad-based monitoring should occur.

The headline focuses on the phone tracking rather than the emails – and 56% is a large majority, but 52% is just a slender majority.  (Note too the margin of error is 3.7%, which makes the fairly small 4% difference even less impressive).  It’s also somewhat confusing. The question asked (again with my emphases):

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

The repeated invocations of ‘investigating terrorism’ may be misleading given that the data collection at issue is not limited in any way to suspected terrorist acts.  The very point is to collect data on everyone (“all Americans” would be more appropriate wording). It would make more sense to ask whether such surveillance should be tied to suspicion or not, which would make clear the issue was how terrorism was investigated not whether. (See a similar issue with respect to the death penalty here).

And the survey fails to ask about some of the other disturbing revelations – although to be fair, it was not limited to anti-terrorism policies.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the public overwhelmingly opposes the various programs revealed in the Guardian’s reporting. I’m not suggesting they are as likely to prioritize the Fourth Amendment as I am, or to read it as broadly as I do. And I’m not suggesting that anyone here is intentionally trying to deceive.  But the implication that the public strongly supports these programs cannot be defended on the basis of this sort of evidence.  Better questions wouldn’t necessarily show the public were strong civil libertarians – they would give us better evidence. And what polls show later will be at least partly a product of the discourse around the issue and the leaks, a discourse in which the media will actively seek to impose particular framing.

In short, ‘public support’ is constructed in a number of ways, and it’s worth attending to these if we want to understand what’s going on, rather than rely on myths about democracy that serve to reinforce the positions of the powerful.


CBS asks a different set of questions and therefore gives a different set of answers – Most disapprove of gov’t phone snooping of ordinary Americans. (H/T Charlie Savage). What makes this question better, to my mind, is that it separates the issue of ‘Americans suspected of terrorist activity’ from ‘ordinary Americans’ (although from a non-survey perspective I do find the latter framing a bit disturbing.)  But the key is that it gets to the real issue here – should data collection depend on suspicion.

This may change, as I said, but the difference here is huge.  75% is in fact a large majority and very much larger than 38%.

Good work by CBS on asking  a better question, even if it counts against my claim about the tendencies in how polling is framed.*  There is still a lot to be learned, hopefully we’ll see  more of this in the coming days.

One sad note – on the question of data collection for ‘ordinary Americans’, Democrats are evenly split (48%/48%).

*The other possibility here is that elites are more split than I imagined, but we’ll have to wait to see about that.

[Update II]

Gallup is out with it’s poll. Their headline: Americans Disapprove of Government Surveillance Programs. Note their question combines the internet and phone surveiilance.

At plus or minus 4, this may actually be slightly less than a majority, although there is no doubt which position is the more popular one. Gallup also found a even split on the question of approval of the leaker’s actions.


Written by David Kaib

June 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

4 Responses

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  1. thanks for the post. something bugs me though. they only polled about 1000 persons over the whole country. any idea on the genders, races, or social status of this very small sample represented?


    June 12, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    • Trying to avoid the weeds, but: there’s essential two issues here, One, is the sample large enough, and two, is it representative. For the first, you probably want to focus on the plus / minus. So if someone says a majority support X, at 51%, but it’s plus or minus four, you can’t really say that. For the second, it depends – sometimes they will tell you about the demographics of the sample, and sometimes they won’t. It’s better practice to include it, and if it’s biased and you’ve got a question / issue that differs according to that characteristic. then there are problems. But with more polls, this becomes less of an issue.

      David Kaib

      June 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm

  2. […] long ago, I argued that how poll questions are often framed, and more important, how they are interpreted in the media, […]

  3. […] to idea that submerged state polices are caused by the public, that the drone program and mass surveillance are products of public opinion and how death penalty opinions are misunderstood. This is one more […]

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