Deception and Public Opinion Polling

by Mark Sapir, Director, Retro Poll

excerpted from the book

Censored 2004

by Peter Phillips and Project Censored

Seven Stories Press, 2003, paper


From presidential popularity to support for war, from the death penalty to abortion, from O.J. Simpson to Homer Simpson, polls are seen, heard, and read trumpeting what we, the public, think about it all. Polls have become a key instrument in the battle for public attention. Yet opinion polls are generally misleading. Even the best polls, those that use reliable methods, usually conceal vital truths from the public either by omitting, hiding, or oversimplifying important information. By choice, polls validate the media's filtered view of the world.

During September 2002 and April 2003, Retro Poll, an alternative polling organization, made thousands of phone calls to people all over the U.S. regarding the War on Terrorism, Palestine and Israel, War in Iraq, the USA Patriot Act, the Bill of Rights, and the removal of civil liberties in the U.S. Retro Poll uses a unique methodology that investigates people's background knowledge in addition to asking their opinions. This allows an assessment of the extent to which background knowledge or its absence contributes to particular political views. We also compare answers to general questions with those to highly specific questions on the same subject.

One of our most important findings (seen in both polls) was that people who supported war against Iraq were overwhelmingly those who believed the media-promoted lies about Saddam Hussein being involved with Al Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By failing to look at such issues, major polls validate disinformation and create the sense that public opinion is based on values and belief rather than manipulated by false claims.

In April 2003, more than 30 volunteers, mainly college students in the San Francisco area, polled a random sample of the U.S. population on their knowledge and views concerning Constitutional rights, the USA Patriot Act, and the War on Terrorism. Of more than 1,000 people contacted, 215 from 46 states agreed to participate. The results, showing revulsion toward the infringements of the Patriot Act, were ignored by the corporate media. Here's why: opinion research is not just error prone, but actually fraudulent.

Like the big polls the public hears about, Retro Poll buys phone lists from a reputable company that randomly generates and sells these lists for surveys and marketing purposes. Only about one in four of the people we reached agreed to answer the questions. The others either declined or hung up. This isn't surprising. It is commonly accepted in public opinion research that 70 percent or more of those contacted will refuse to participate in polls. With that single act, the refusers destroy the claim that a poll sampled people randomly because the results of any poll can honestly reflect the views of the general population only if the 70 percent who refuse to talk have near identical views with the 30 percent who agree to participate. If there are significant differences, the smaller group is not a random sample and the results cannot be said to equate to public opinion.

Polls usually report out a statistical "margin of error" for their results. The margin of error that polls report depends not upon the number of people called but upon the number who responded, the sample size. They usually report a margin of error of about 3 percent for a sample size of 1,000. But this margin of error statistic that makes polls look highly accurate is, in essence, a cover to hide the 70 percent who refused to participate. Even if 99 percent refused to participate and we had to speak to 100,000 people to find 1,000 who would talk with us, the margin of error statistic would still be reported as the same 3 percent. That's a fraud.

While it is always possible that those refusing have similar views to those agreeing to be polled, Retro Poll has found evidence to the contrary. When we asked over 1,000 people, "Would you take a few minutes to respond to a poll on the impact of the war on terrorism on the rights of the American people," one woman responded, "You wouldn't want to hear our view on that. People wouldn't like what we think."

"That's okay," I said. "Your views are important; they should be counted and reported as part of the democratic process. We want your opinion to count." "No," the woman answered insistently. "We're against the war the way they did it. We think they should just bomb all of them, not send our troops over there...." I didn't ask whether she meant bomb everyone in Iraq or some larger group of people, but the woman's self-awareness that her views were outside the "norm" caused her to refuse to participate. Undoubtedly others have different specific reasons for non-participation that we don't know because most won't talk about them.

If the "bomb them all" woman may seem the exception among nonrespondents, consider this: Fewer African Americans and Latinos agree to be polled in most national samples (in the current poll, 5.7 percent were African Americans and in the prior poll, 4 percent; for Latinos, the corresponding figures were 6.2 percent and 8 percent. Each of these groups make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, actually 12.5 percent for Latinos). As a result, our poll sample ended up being 79.4 percent European American, but the actual white/non-Hispanic European American proportion of the population is 69.1 percent according to the 2000 Census.

It is possible to improve the participation of underrepresented groups in a poll. Gallup reports on their Web site that after completing a poll, they weight the demographics to assure correct proportions are represented. Weighting means that you multiply the results of an underrepresented group by a factor that will bring their input up to intended and expected levels. Another thing that can be done is to simply oversample in a population that is expected to self-select out of the poll. If, for example, you want to double the number of African-American responses you just begin with a sample that has 24 percent African Americans instead of 12 percent. These tricks of the trade work on paper and in statistical analysis, but they both fail to address the important question: "Why would any particular group be less likely or more likely to participate?"

If that question sounds familiar, it should. It is just a more specific and powerful example of the pesky problem of the 70 percent refusers who won't participate in polls-the problem that won't go away. When we take it to the level of the underrepresentation of ethnic groups, however, it is easier to see that there are probably specific sociopolitical and/or economic reasons why some people are more likely to participate than others. These can include issues like English language skills, fear of being monitored by race, lack of self-confidence, or poor educational background. Any of these factors or dozens of others that may have an impact on a person's decision would invalidate the principle of a random poll sample that can be used to approximate the general public. If those African Americans who agreed to participate were more middle class or better educated than those that refused, then adjusting their input upward by a multiplier (weighting them) to provide a bigger contribution would be a charade because their views might not represent those of less educated lower socioeconomic classes of African Americans. You might, for example, be inappropriately magnifying the views of a tiny group of African-American Republicans. But the pretense of random samples and low margin of error is only part of the problem.


In a recent investigative article on the Field Poll, a group at the Poor News Network was able to tease out a key part of the polling fraud. When directly interviewed, Field Poll leaders claimed that poll publishers in the media and other big-dollar poll funders have no influence on poll subject, content, or interpretation. They claimed that Field researchers choose their own survey topics and the media financially supports them mainly by subscriptions. But when Poor News investigators called and pretended to be interested in purchasing (i.e. commissioning) a particular poll, they were told by a Field director that they would have to come up with six figures in big bucks to get what they wanted. The caller was given the example of a $100,000 poll funded by the San Francisco Chronicle and other unnamed sponsors, which found renewed strong public support for nuclear power. Who funded that poll besides the Chronicle? The Field director didn't say, but we might guess it was the energy industry.

The weak attempt to deny these practices actually conceals more ominous and detrimental purposes and impacts of these polls. Our April 2003 poll on public views concerning the Patriot Act, the War on Terrorism, civil rights, and Iraq revealed a public totally confounded by the disinformation they receive from the media and government, something that major polls almost never explore. For instance, when Americans hear specific provisions of the USA Patriot Act, they oppose the intrusions of this law into their civil rights by a wide margin (average 77 percent). Yet when asked generally what impact the War on Terrorism is having upon civil rights, many of the same people say it is "strengthening" or having "no impact" upon their rights (57 percent).

This inner confusion and conflicting loyalties was exemplified by a 37 year-old woman from Udora, Kansas, who rejected each of three provisions of the Patriot Act mentioned in the poll and also opposed the use of torture, other outlawed forms of coercion, and lengthy prison detention without trial; she also supported a requirement that the U.S. prove accusations against other nations before attacking them. However, when asked each of the following two questions: "Should the U.S. support international efforts to prosecute war crimes?" and "Should the U.S. make war against Iraq or other countries the government accuses of supporting terrorism when they are not attacking anyone?", this same Kansan hesitated and replied: "I'm confused. What is Bush for? I want to do whatever Bush wants. I want to support the president."

One might think that the media would be fascinated with and want to study this contradictory phenomenon. But there are strong financial incentives for polls to provide a simpler picture, one which validates the sponsors and the government. Because most major polls are generated by the mass media and other corporate forces (including foundations that depend upon money from their parent corporations), they will aim to show public views to be consistent with the funders' needs and wishes. As a source of embarrassment to the media, the contradictions and confusion in the public outlook, which often derive from media disinformation and government-media collaboration, will tend to be suppressed, even when they are seen in results.

Likewise, key questions are kept general to create emotional mass responses rather than to challenge people's ability to reason. Questions like: "Do you like the president?", "Is he doing a good job?", "Do you support the troops overseas?", and "Is the war on terrorism protecting your rights?" are actually a test of what people have absorbed from the media. To say "no" to any of these implies aberrance. Such questions require a person with a different perspective to risk identifying themselves as outside the norm.

People are so used to having such hidden assumptions placed into mass media and polling discourse that some (regardless of political ideology) inevitably find Retro Poll's attempts to neutralize such assumptions and bias to reflect "bias." For instance, the September 2002 Retro Poll contained this obscure factual question from <www.IfAmericansKnew>:


"In the Palestinian uprising of the past two years, 84 children were killed by one side before the other side killed a child. Were these 84 children killed by:

* the Israeli Army

* Palestinian militants

* either

* don't know?"

Obviously, this factual question was chosen to investigate the impact of disinformation around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but it is nevertheless a factual question, with a factual answer. Someone who knows the correct answer but prefers that such bitter and suppressed truths not be highlighted in public may rankle at this question and may call it biased, for it challenges the media purveyed disinformation that the Palestinians have been the main source of the terror against civilians. But the question itself is not biased, as those who do not know the answer will simply say so. The results measured bias in the mass media coverage when 13 percent of respondents (more than those who correctly gave "the Israeli Army" as his or her answer), assumed it had to be the Palestinians rather than answering "don't know." (Retro Pollsters tell people it is better to answer "don't know" than to guess the answers to the factual questions.)

Because major polls before the invasion consistently showed at least two-thirds of Americans opposed to attacking Iraq without U.N. approval, one might ask how it became important to ask people so frequently whether they support the invasion once war had begun. The media editors certainly know that, historically, at the initiation of any war, the public view will always appear to shift to support of government policies. This is a well-studied mass "loyalty" effect. By making it look like a surprising shift in public belief rather than an inevitable by-product of government action, the media polls helped generate a "pro-war" movement for the government. Clear Channel went so far as to organize pro-war demonstrations. In actuality, the revulsion at what the U.S. government was doing remained widespread, though somewhat muted and demoralized. Such media behavior empowers right-wing extremism, potentiates attacks on democratic dissent, and weakens the general public perception of the peace movement.

The eagerness with which media conduct polls is a measure of the extent to which relevant news and critical thinking are supplanted by the business of news marketing. Even the more "professional" and "reputable" polling outfits end up as prostitutes to all-powerful government, corporate and marketing forces and, as in the case of the Field Poll, dare not admit that most of what they do is designed to insure the success of their organizations by pleasing their corporate funders and government leaders with beneficial results.

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