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I talk to telephone surveyors when they call. I used to work in survey research as an undergrad; it's almost as thankless a job as telemarketing, really. It's hard work. People are suspicious of your motives, they don't want to reveal information like demographic stuff (age, income, etc.) because they worry it might be traced back to them. So I know what it's like to be on the calling end of the survey phone, and so I talk to surveyors when they call. As a social scientist, I figure it's my duty to do so, and that it'll build up good karma for me when the time comes that I need a survey done.

But when I get questions that are obviously written in order to frighten, or to "push," I get mad and let the surveyor have it.

Tonight's phone survey was definitely one of those times. Come with me over the jump.

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The young woman on the other end of the phone said she was from First Media Corporation, and said that she was doing a "public opinion survey." I've done these before; CNN has called me once or twice, and I got a call from Reuters once, so it's not like I don't know how to handle them.

But this young woman was obviously not trained. For one thing, she had an accent that was hard to understand. For another, she was flustered whenever I put in an opinion in addition to giving an answer. And she, like many untrained or poorly trained survey callers, just wanted to rush me through the survey and not listen to what I had to say, which is a great way to alienate your survey subject. When she asked me what my education level was, and I told her I had a Master's degree, she said "So that's a post-graduate degree?" ::facepalm:: No, dear, it's a graduate degree. Bless your heart.

When we got past the standard non-push questions (Do you approve or disapprove of President Obama's current actions, do you approve or disapprove of the Democrats in Congress, do you approve or disapprove of the Republicans in Congress, what is the most important issue facing the country right now [I said "civil rights" and had to repeat it three times before she understood me], who did you vote for in the 2008 election, which party are you planning on voting for in the next election, and so forth), then we got to some really pushy ones. She rattled off a long list of problems including terrorism, the war in Iraq, health care, and a number of others, and asked which one I thought was the most pressing problem facing the nation today. Civil rights weren't listed, so I said health care.

Then came the push questions.

"If you knew that your senator had voted for a public option bill that would strip seniors of their Medicare coverage, would that make you more or less likely to vote for them?"

"If you knew that your senator had voted for a public option bill that would cost 900 billion dollars in taxes, would that make you more or less likely to vote for them?"

"If you knew that your senator had voted for a public option bill that would give the government the ability to look at your medical records and health information, would that make you more or less likely to vote for them?"

"If you knew that your senator had voted for a public option bill that would prevent you from choosing your own doctor, or staying with the one you have now, would that make you more or less likely to vote for them?"

And on and on and on. This was, by every standard I have ever learned, a push poll. Ask leading questions that are phrased precisely to scare the pants off of people. Make sure you connect the thing you want to demonize with stuff that actually will demonize it (note the repeated use of "public option" with all those bad characteristics like higher taxes, depriving seniors of Medicare, etc.). Appeal to their baser natures - like greed. Do everything you can do to make the people who vote to make universal health care into law look like the Big Bad Guys.

I'm convinced that this "poll" was commissioned and written by a conservative think tank, or the people who run Faux News, or some similar group. Or perhaps First Media is itself a such conservative group. The conservative greed-is-good smell was all over the survey. During it, I expostulated more than once that I wasn't going to answer those question because it was a leading (and in a couple of cases, double-barreled) question that were meaningless. This is when the surveyor got most flustered and couldn't seem to stammer through the next question. I think she wasn't prepared for someone who actually thought the way I did about these issues.

But it worries me. I wonder how many people answered those questions thinking that they were answering a real survey, one that meant something, and how much their opinions about health care and the government were changed in a negative fashion because of it. Push polls are designed to do exactly that - to frighten and propagandize, and if this young woman had been better trained, she might have been able to do exactly that. As it was, the push poll results will be no better or more reliable than your average web poll on a partisan site. I'm going to keep an ear to the wind for the next few weeks and see if the results of this poll show up anywhere in the news.

So if you get a call from First Media Corporation in the next day or two, tape it, or write down the questions. Polls like this need to be exposed for what they are - rank propaganda - because they are, quite simply, a disgrace.

Edit: Wow, the Rec List on my first diary back after months away? Thanks, folks! That's a boost I really needed this week.

Additional edit: The phone number the call came from was 801-823-2023. If you see that number on your Caller ID, they're calling from First Media. Have fun.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Killer of Sacred Cows on Thu Oct 29, 2009 at 07:58 PM PDT.

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