Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (28): Push Polls

Push polls are used in election campaigns, not to gather information about public opinion, but to modify public opinion in favor of a certain candidate, or – more commonly – against a certain candidate. They are called “push” polls because they intend to “push” the people polled towards a certain point of view.

Push polls are not cases of “lying with statistics” as we usually understand them, but it’s appropriate to talk about them since they are very similar to a “lying technique” that I discussed many times, namely leading questions (see here for example). The difference here is that leading questions aren’t used to manipulate poll results, but to manipulate people.

The push poll isn’t really a poll at all, since the purpose isn’t information gathering. Which is why many people don’t like the term and label it oxymoronic. A better term indeed would be advocacy telephone campaigns. A push poll  is more like a gossip campaign, a propaganda effort or telemarketing. They’re very similar to political attack ads, in the sense that they intend to smear candidates, often with little basis in facts. Compared to political ads, push polls have the “advantage” that they don’t seem to emanate from the campaign offices of one of the candidates. (Push polls are typically conducted by bogus polling agencies). Hence it’s more difficult for the recipients of the push poll to classify the “information” contained in the push poll as political propaganda. He or she is therefore more likely to believe the information. Which is of course the reason push polls are used. Also, the fact that they are presented as “polls” rather than campaign messages, makes it more likely that people listen, and as they listen more, they internalize the messages better than in the case of outright campaigning (which they often dismiss as propaganda).

Push polls usually, but not necessarily, contain lies or false rumors. They may also be limited to misleading or leading questions. For example, a push poll may ask people: “Do you think that the widespread and persistent rumors about Obama’s Muslim faith, based on his own statements, connections and acquaintances, are true?”. Some push polls may even contain some true but unpleasant facts about a candidate, and then hammer on these facts in order to change the opinions of the people being “polled”.

One infamous example of a push poll was the poll used by Bush against McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000 (insinuating that McCain had an illegitimate black child), or the poll used by McCain (fast learner!) against Obama in 2008 (alleging that Obama had ties with the PLO).

One way to distinguish legitimate polls from push polls is the sample size. The former are usually content with relatively small sample sizes (but not too small), whereas the latter typically want to “reach” as many people as possible. Push polls won’t include demographic questions about the people being polled (gender, age, etc.) since there is no intention to aggregate results, let alone aggregate by type of respondent. Another way to identify push polls is the selection of the target population: normal polls try to reach a random subset of the population; push polls are often targeted at certain types of voters, namely those likely to be swayed by negative campaigning about a certain candidate. Push polls also tend to be quite short compared to regular polls, since the purpose is to reach a maximum number of people.

Limiting Free Speech (37): Incitement to Murder and Death Threats

Should a joke about killing the president be protected by the right to free speech and the First Amendment? Or a poll on Facebook asking if Obama should be assassinated? Or a rap song about “killing a cop”? Or do such things cross a line beyond which the government can intervene, can limit the freedom of speech of those involved, and can punish them for having committed a crime? I would say: it depends.

In US jurisdiction, the Brandenburg v. Ohio case stipulates that abstract advocacy of violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct – including violence – may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

So, advocacy of violence can only be prohibited when there is clear incitement of an imminent violent act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

In the specific case of death threats, the Supreme Court case is Watts v. United States (1969). There it says that only true threats aren’t constitutionally protected; mere hyperbole, humor or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected. What is a “true threat? According to Virginia v. Black (2003),

a statement can’t be a punishable threat unless it’s made “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Thus, following Black, a statement is a punishable threat only if a reasonable listener would understand it as a threat of attack and the speaker intended that the listener get that impression. (source)

Personally, I wouldn’t place too much weight on the second clause in that last sentence (after the “and”). I think it’s sufficient that the listener gets the impression of a threat and that the threat produces reasonable fear, even when the person stating the threat didn’t really mean it and was just joking (hence no real “intent”). So a joke about a bomb while on an airplane shouldn’t be protected, while a joke on the radio about killing the president should be protected, because the president or anyone else would probably not take it very seriously. The context of the threat is important. Even when there is clear intent and therefore not just a joke, but no likelihood of the threat being carried out, I would also propose to protect freedom of expression. The main focus is on the reaction of the reasonable recipient and the risk to which he or she is exposed (this focus contains a subjective and a factual element: perception/reaction and factual risk).

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (7): Negative and Positive Freedom

It think it’s fair to say that both the libertarian and egalitarian conceptions of freedom are wrong. Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom. More precisely, they believe that individuals should be free from interference, especially interference by the government, and with their property. They don’t accept that it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with but because they can’t choose between opportunities.

Such a positive freedom is preferred by egalitarians (also called social-democrats, progressives, or even liberals). These, however, often make the mistake of denying the importance of negative freedom. In their effort to equalize freedom they often show disdain for non-interference and property rights.

There is a relatively easy way to bring these two points of view a bit closer together. The main worry of libertarians is that egalitarians will use the power of the state to redistribute property. (Remember the uproar over the claim by Obama that he wants to “spread the wealth around”). As I stated here, there are good reasons to encourage voluntary redistribution by citizens, without enforcement by the state (enforcement should only be necessary when citizens fail to engage in charity). If the resources and capabilities necessary for an equal positive freedom are redistributed voluntarily by citizens, then there is no interference and negative freedom and property rights are safeguarded.

This may sound naive, but I don’t think it is. There’s already an enormous amount of private charity and remittances are also a very important source of financial aid.

What is Democracy? (34): A Civic Responsibility

In most democracy, voting is a right and not a legal duty. Hence, political participation is less than 100%, sometimes a lot less. Some people vote, and vote only in some elections. The number of people who vote is called voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. In U.S. Presidential elections, for example, turnout is usually between 50 and 60%, with slightly more in the 2008 election which saw many first-time African-American voters vote for Obama.

However, even if voting is not a legal duty in most democracies, it is generally considered to be a moral duty and a civic responsibility. A high voter turnout is generally considered desirable for many different reasons, and most democracies spend a lot of energy on “get the vote out” efforts. One reason for these efforts is the fact that low turnouts lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Policies will reflect this and will be to the benefit of those who vote. This can result in discrimination.

High turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the system and low turnout as a symptom of disenchantment, indifference and ultimately of the demise of the system. Of course, a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference – except in very close races – and hence it’s normal that people feel indifferent. An individual, when faced with a monolithic monster of a state, threatening and distant at the same time, feels insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach. Powerlessness becomes a fact of life and people retreat from democratic politics. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to insignificance. The state does not react to individual claims as quickly as it is supposed to, if it reacts at all. The bottom line is that individuals or small groups cannot hurt the state. Their votes are less than pinpricks. The only elements in society able to influence the centralized state are large, national and centralized pressure groups or political parties that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.

But there is a solution. Federalism and decentralization encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state.

Apathy and indifference are also the consequence of the impossibility in many democracies to vote for issues. When people are allowed to take decisions on issues, they will be more eager to debate the issues and to inform themselves on the pros and cons of possible solutions. Relying exclusively on representation creates apathy because people can only vote on persons. Take a look here for the reasons why representation creates indifference.

Other ways to promote civic responsibility are better education, a well functioning civil society in which free associations can mobilize citizens, modern information technologies such as the Internet etc.

Greg Mankiw has a different take on the problem of voter turnout:

Voting is a civic responsibility, they tell us, because democracy works best when everyone participates. … But relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice … can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.

Eligible voters who are less informed about the candidates than their fellow citizens choose to stay at home, knowing the outcome will be more reliable without their participation. By not voting, they are doing themselves and everyone else a favor. If the ill-informed were all induced to vote, they would merely add random noise to the outcome.

What’s the evidence that this theory is right, that nonvoters are less informed than voters? Studies of voter turnout have found that education is the single best predictor of who votes: The highly educated turn out more often than less educated. A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters.

Granted. But rather than encouraging the less educated to stay home, as Mankiw seems to do, we should perhaps try to give them a better education.