When polls become “polls” become propaganda headlines

When polls become “polls” become propaganda headlines

There are polls, and then there are “polls.”

Polls aren’t just a few questions you slap together and ask to anyone you feel like.

Polls are complicated bits of social science. They’re based on actual sets of scientific principles and industry best practices, like Canada’s MRIA or the British MRS. The pollsters and stats nerds behind polls use the best methods they can to try to get a random sample of a population so they can draw accurate conclusions about that population.

These pollsters and stats nerds are happy to tell you all about these methods. They’ll tell you things like:

  • What they used as a sample frame (i.e., what’s our population? where did we get their contact information? does that source accurately reflect the overall population?)
  • How they selected the sample (e.g., clustered? stratified? quota?)
  • How they contacted participants (i.e., telephone? internet panel? in-person?)
  • How they asked the questions (e.g., did you test the questions beforehand? are they standardized questions? have you and/or other pollsters used them before?) and
  • How they weighted the final data to make it as accurate a representation of the population as possible

You can use this kind of boring, boring information to evaluate whether a poll’s drawn accurate conclusions about the population in question.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen. But when polls do go wrong, like they did in predicting the 2015 UK election outcome, this transparency allows different pollsters to look at what they did, understand what went wrong and how to make their polls more accurate in the future. You know, science.

“Polls,” however, are different.

A “poll” is when someone with an obvious agenda wants an impressive-sounding number to make a sexy headline.

The UK’s Daily Express just gave us one of these “polls.” Take a look at this headline:

80% of Brits would be happy to quit UK for RUSSIA after Putin offers free land”¹

Really? 80% of all people in Britain? Really??

Of course not. This was a “poll,” not a poll.

This “poll” is just a question on their website that was answered by 22,000 people that read “Would you move to Russia in exchange for free land?” with the options being “Yes! Bargain” or “No way.”

Real polls don’t run on websites open to anyone and everyone. If you don’t know who you’re talking to in terms of basic demographics (age, gender, location, etc.), you don’t have a real poll.

Real polls don’t allow people to vote more than once. I did, twice, even though I’m a) not British and b) not in Britain. Try it. Delete your cookies and go again. And again. Maybe three times is enough.

Real polls don’t ask leading questions or have leading response options for yes/no questions that sound like they were written by some guy down at the pub.

And worst here, real polls don’t do all these things and then have the balls to say something as groundless as “80% of Brits” in the headline.

office_panel_2
An accurate representation of how “polls” make your average pollster or stats nerd feel.

But “polls” like this make good headlines for propagandists. No wonder then that Russia’s RT and Komsomolskaya Pravda, to name two of the Kremlin’s finest examples, picked up on it.

80% of Brits want to move to Russia after Duma considers giving out free land – poll,” raves RT.

Almost 80% of Brits are ready to move to Russia for a plot of land in Siberia,” Komsomolskaya Pravda says (my translation from the Russian).

Blech. This put me into desk-flipping-over mode.

Propagandists know a few things, especially when it comes to polls and “polls.”

They know most people only read headlines and aren’t about to scroll through an article for details on how a poll/”poll” was done.

They know a lot of people don’t understand how polls are actually done and don’t have the luxury (or pain) of knowing a former stats nerd/pollster monkey to explain all this crap to them. And they know that numbers and percentages stand out, especially anything that reads ‘x% of y think that…’

Think about this the next time you see a headline proclaiming a poll result.

 

1. Do not trust headlines that feel the need to resort to CAPITAL LETTERS.

Also, the irony of a UKIP-backing, Brexit-loving paper using what I’d consider a Gallicism here has really, really made my day

 

 

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MH17 conspiracy theories about Ukraine swirl in Dutch referendum

MH17 conspiracy theories about Ukraine swirl in Dutch referendum

(my latest in Sydney Morning Herald)

Amsterdam: Despite evidence that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists using a Russian-supplied Buk missile launcher, Bart Nijman is not so sure.

He’s convinced Ukraine might be responsible.

“They know more than they’re willing to tell us,” Nijman, an editor at Dutch right-wing shock blog GeenStijl, says.

MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, taking 298 lives with it, including 193 from the Netherlands and 28 from Australia. The evidence strongly points towards pro-Russian separatists firing the deadly missile, but Nijman and others campaigning in the Netherlands against the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement don’t buy it.

Nijman says that Ukraine’s apparent refusal to hand over primary radar data is evidence of something fishy.

“It makes them a suspect,” says Nijman, echoing claims that have appeared in RT (Russia Today), Sputnik and other Russian state media.

“There may have been a Ukrainian warplane hiding underneath or in the vicinity of MH17.”

Claims like these, however tenuous, underpin the No campaign’s efforts to convince the Dutch that an already-ratified, 1200-page treaty with Ukraine is a bad idea.

Thanks to Nijman and his colleagues, Dutch voters will be asked on April 6 whether they approve of a treaty on closer political and economic integration between the EU and Ukraine, one that even No campaigners like Nijman admit won’t be reversed.

Leading No campaigner Thierry Baudet goes even further than Nijman.

“The Ukrainian position [on MH17] is absolutely dubious,” he claims. “It’s a country that’s essentially bombing its own people.”

Baudet even suggests that Ukraine may have deliberately refused to close its airspace over the eastern war zone to gain a tactical advantage over the separatists.

“Either it was money they wanted [from airlines], or they wanted it as a human shield, to make it impossible for the separatists to defend themselves,” Baudet says.

Some of these arguments have found their way, of all places, onto toilet paper. A No campaigner, businessman Ruben Marsman, actually received €48,000 ($71,200) of Dutch government campaign finance money to print and distribute rolls of toilet paper containing statements like “Safety – wasn’t MH17 shot down from Ukraine?”

With a new direct democracy law that puts legislation to a vote with at least 300,000 signatures, Nijman and his Eurosceptic colleagues were able to force the first EU-related piece of legislation in the Dutch parliament to a referendum, even if a treaty with Ukraine wasn’t their first choice. Nijman and and other right-wing Eurosceptic organisations, want to use the referendum to send a message to Brussels.

“We feel left out of our own democracy,” Nijman says. “We’re doing this to send a signal for our own democracy to Brussels. We want to shake up Brussels a bit.”

The connection between Russian-media talking points and Eurosceptic parties is a theme being repeated throughout Europe.

The Ukraine–EU Association Agreement has already had its place in history.

In late 2013, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the deal, which kicked off the Euromaidan protests that eventually led to his downfall in February 2014.

If the Dutch vote no, the government could feel obliged to review the agreement, which would throw a spanner into Ukraine’s hopes of European integration. More broadly, a Ukraine that can’t pivot towards Europe is one that has to pivot back towards Russia.

Nijman, despite saying he’s not interested in telling people how they should vote, says that the agreement will be bad for everyone.

“In the first place, I worry that it might anger Putin even more, and you never know what that will lead to,” Nijman says.

Baudet doesn’t feel that Ukraine is a country the Netherlands should have anything to do with.

Aside from claims of economic damage to both Ukraine and the Netherlands from the agreement, it will provoke further conflict with Russia, he says.

“We’re disrupting them in the name of some fantasy,” he says, “that there is some sort of new Ukraine rising up from the old.

“It’s the same sort of nonsense we heard coming out of the Arab Spring.”

Arguments like these anger Yes campaigners and Ukrainians in the Netherlands like Serge Radochyn, who runs the “Oekraïne-Referendum” website.

“These cliches are one for one what I’ve heard coming out of the Kremlin,” says Radochyn in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch parliament. “It’s just a reflection of Russian propaganda to me.”

No campaigners aren’t doing much to dispel that perception. For his part, Baudet echoes the Kremlin’s claim that the EU and the West “supported a coup d’etat” in Ukraine.

“We have brought the country to the absolute brink of collapse,” he says, laying the responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine squarely on the West, particularly the EU and NATO.

Nijman echoes another oft-heard Kremlin talking point – the existence of neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine – and claims that they hold the reins of power.

“You’ve got neo-Nazi members of parliament running around in Kiev,” he claims, referring to the far-right Svoboda party that lost all but six of its seats in the 2014 post-Maidan parliamentary elections, getting less than 5 per cent of the popular vote.

Michael Khrystenko, head of the group Ukrainians in the Netherlands, doesn’t believe the Kremlin has any direct influence on the No campaign.

“This referendum would have happened without Russia,” he says.

For Khrystenko, the No campaigners are just saying what they think they need to about Ukraine to win, which happens to dovetail with what comes out of Kremlin-friendly media.

“They’re trying to find all sorts of different reasons to blackmail Ukraine, to smear Ukraine, just to get to a No vote,” Khrystenko says.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/mh17-conspiracy-theories-about-ukraine-swirl-in-dutch-referendum-20160322-gnp33g.html#ixzz43w9twptI