Thursday 6 August 2015

What is a push poll?

A Push Poll is a propaganda technique that is used to try to influence public opinion in the guise of conducting an opinion poll. The objective of a push poll is to "push" people towards a predetermined point of view.

There are two main forms of payoff from a push poll. One is that the respondents to the poll end up being nudged towards a predetermined way of thinking, and another (potentially much larger) payoff is that the results of the biased poll can be used as "evidence" to support the predetermined narrative, perhaps in the guise of a newspaper article, TV news segment, online infographic or whatever.

Loaded questions

One of the most common tactics in modern push polling is the presentation of loaded questions. A loaded question relies on the fallacious conflation of a question and an assertion designed to sway the respondent into answering in a particular manner, It's easy to see how this might work with a couple of examples. I'll provide a basic question, and then show how the outcome can be influenced by through the addition of further assertions.
Question 1. Do you believe that the government should cut the social security bill?

Question 1a. Do you believe that the government should cut the social security bill because there are too many feckless people who refuse to work?

Question 1b. Do you believe that the government should cut the social security bill by forcing many of the most vulnerable people in society into absolute destitution?
It's easy to see that more people would be inclined to answer yes to 1a than to 1b because of their response to the loaded language. It seems fair to say that number of people answering yes to the unloaded question would almost certainly fall somewhere between the numbers of those answering yes to the two blatantly loaded questions.

Here's another example:

Question 2. Do you believe that the UK should maintain a nuclear arsenal?

Question 2a. Do you believe that the UK should maintain a nuclear arsenal in order to deter other countries from attacking us?

Question 2b. Do you believe that the UK should maintain a nuclear arsenal that costs £100 billion and that only a psychopath would ever actually use?
It doesn't matter what our opinion on either of these subjects is, what is important is that we understand that the initial unloaded question is relatively fair and unbiased, while the two alternate questions are deliberately worded in order to sway us into providing the desired answer either way.
Tory push polling

In the runup to the 2015 General Election the Conservative party used their emailing list to disseminate push polls that were absolutely jammed full of loaded questions designed to sway people into agreeing with Tory policy. It's actually unclear whether they even went to the bother of compiling and publishing the results of the polls, the main objective was clearly to influence the thinking of the people who opened the emails, not to collect polling data. 

Below is an infographic I made in an effort to expose this kind of grotesquely manipulative Tory propaganda:

Labour push polling

As a result of Jeremy Corbyn's exponential rise in popularity amongst Labour Party supporters, the Blairite wing of the party went into meltdown, attacking Corbyn with far more venom than they ever attacked the Tory led coalition government before the general election. It's absolutely clear that their attacks backfired terribly, because a condemnation from people like Tony Blair (warmonger), Jack Straw (disgraced "cash for access" scammer) and John McTernan (ludicrously inept election strategist) sounded like ringing endorsements in the ears of countless Labour supporters who are sick to the back teeth of the Blairite prescription of Thatcherite economic policy disguised with an almost transparently thin veneer of pseudo-socialist gloss.

When it became clear how badly this outright condemnation strategy was backfiring the pro-austerity Labour MP John Cruddas decided that a better way to fight back would be to conduct a push poll designed to show that the electorate support ideological austerity and oppose Jeremy Corbyn's policy of  stimulating economic growth through intelligent investment in things that create strong long-term economy gains (infrastructure modernisation, education, research and development, housing ...).

The blatantly loaded question was in the form of an agree or disagree statement which read as follows:

"we must live within our means so cutting the deficit is the top priority"

The response to this loaded question was then fed to the mainstream media with the interpretation that Labour lost the election because the electorate are supposedly pro-austerity. This unjustifiable assertion based on a loaded question was then dutifully regurgitated by Labour Party blogs and mainstream media outlets such as Labourlist, The Guardian, and The Independent

There are two really glaring flaws in the conclusion that Labour lost the election because the electorate supposedly support ideological austerity.

The first is the loaded nature of the question. Of course people are going to tend to agree with a economically meaningless platitude like "live within our means". It's actually surprising that as many as 16% of people disagreed with it given the absurdly biased way the question was framed.

The second flaw is that agreeing that the deficit should be cut is clearly not the same as agreeing with ideological austerity, because the socially and economically destructive Tory "cut our way to growth" strategy is clearly not the only conceivable way of cutting the deficit. In fact, Jeremy Corbyn's plan is to cut the deficit by carefully investing in things that create more economic activity than they cost.

A question to determine whether people support Jeremy Corbyn's plan, or the ideological austerity he opposes would have been worded something like this:

Is it better to reduce the deficit by cutting and privatising public services (austerity), or through targeted investments that promote more economic activity than they cost (Corbynomics)?
I'm pretty sure that the response to that kind of question would have been very different to the blatantly loaded push poll that Peter Cruddas and the mainstream media were so delighted to present as evidence that there is no public appetite for Corbynomics, therefore the Labour Party must continue imitating Tory economic ideology.
Conclusion: Beware of push polling

Push polling is an incredibly effective propaganda tool because people are naturally inclined to give an answer to a question. We're taught from a young age that questions are there to be answered. The education system does not teach children to first ask whether the question is being asked in an unbiased manner, or why the question is even being asked in the first place.

Once we become aware of how easy it is to manipulate the outcome of opinion polls through the use of emotive language and loaded questions, it becomes very easy to spot push polls for the political propaganda that they are.

Any time we see a question that strays beyond the parameters of a basic question (through the use of emotive language or the fallacious addition of unjustified assertions), then we should recognise it for the biased political propaganda that it actually is, and then think carefully about the reason that the question has been asked, rather than what our answer to it may be.

 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.

Austerity is a con
Jeremy Corbyn: The more they attack him the stronger he gets
New Labour are not left-wing
George Osborne has created more debt than every Labour government in history combined
How Ed Balls' austerity-lite agenda ruined Labour's election chances
Are you as gullible as the Tories think you are?
The Tory "economic recovery" mantra is a lie
What is ... Fiscal Multiplication?

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