Thursday, November 29, 2012

Behind surveys with ideological subtext lies an attempt to subtly shape the views of the audience.

By Marc Jampole

The number of surveys that news media are placing on their websites for their online followers seems to multiply daily. Most of the surveys reflect only the views of the respondents. Since the respondents self-select to take the survey, the validity of these surveys for the nation as a whole or even for the universe comprising the audience for the media outlet is virtually always suspect. 
Take for example the Yahoo! survey of which presidential candidate would receive their vote featured on its web page the day before the election: 53% of the respondents said they would vote for Romney and only 47% for President Obama. Of course the actual results were flipped, with Obama winning 51% of the vote and Romney a mere 47%. Clearly either Yahoo! users or those who answer Yahoo! surveys are more Republican than the voters.
These quick-and-dirty surveys usually ask one or at the most a few questions.  But even with one question, they often seem to be making a point as opposed to gathering information. These media surveys often reduce to attempts to convince the public of something rather than to gather information.  The persuasion comes in how the question and the answers are phrased.
Here are a few recent examples of advocating an ideology in the one-question Yahoo! survey, which changes every day or two on its home page:
Survey Question: Are you planning to shop on Cyber Monday?

            Yes, I don’t like crowds

            No, I prefer to shop in person

The assumption is made that, no matter what, you’re going to shop for Christmas/Hanukkah/Holiday presents. But what if you’re not shopping on Cyber Monday because you don’t celebrate holidays, don’t celebrate by exchanging gifts, are boycotting the holiday, make your own presents or have already shopped online for the holidays? By giving one and only one reason only for not shopping on Cyber Monday, the question assumes that the only possible reason not to shop on the Monday after Thanksgiving is that you are participating in another way in the great American potlatch of materialism  called the Holiday Shopping Season. The subtext of the question supports the basic American ideology of consumerism.
The next example, also from Yahoo!, is even more manipulative:

Survey Question: Do you support a tax hike for the wealthiest Americans?

            Yes, it’s needed to fix the deficit

            No, it will hinder economic growth  

We see in the characterization of the “no” answer one of the great hoaxes that conservative economic writers and pundits have been perpetrating on the American public for decades: that raising taxes on the wealthy will hurt economic growth. It’s just not so. The further up the economic scale you go, the more money you take out of the economy. The wealthy invest most of their money without investing in new jobs or the economy—for example, by buying stocks and bonds on the secondary market (where the money doesn’t go to a company that’s hiring, but to another investor). Every bit of the money that the government takes in is spent (except what’s used to pay down the debt, which is owned primarily by rich folk and foreign governments). World economic history has shown that higher taxes on the wealthy almost always lead to economic growth and virtually never hinder growth.

The “yes” answer also serves as an ideological shill. There are a great many progressives, including myself, who think the deficit is not such as critical problem, but propose raising taxes on the wealthy to improve our infrastructure of roads, bridges, mass transit, public spaces and education; support the development of new technologies; or help the people hurt by the last six years of deep recession followed by slow growth.  The survey question leaves out these option, just as most mainstream and rightwing media and right-wing politicians do: they want to take the ideas of taxing to grow the economy or create a more equitable society off the table because they go against their own mostly false economic notions.

Yahoo! is not the only one that’s trying to freeze the debate about taxes in right-wing terms. Here is a recent Washington Post online survey:

Survey Question: Would you be willing to pay more in taxes to help shore up the deficit?



In this case, the only reason given to raise taxes is to pay down the deficit (which is what I think the imprecise “shore up” means). And again, there are many people who would be delighted to see their taxes raised to kick-start the economy or help people in need, but would not want to pay more in taxes to pay down the deficit at this time. It’s something that the Washington Post  doesn’t even want us to bring up, let alone consider.

The accumulation of little nuggets of propaganda—in these silly surveys, in the details and assumptions of news stories, in the experts quoted in articles—allows many false notions to parade around in the marketplace of ideas as truth. The news media accepts these false notions and wants us to do the same.

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