“Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense.”
I don’t agree with Hitchens on very much, but he is right about this.
In his book The Broken Compass, Hitchens informs us that opinion polls are actually a device for influencing public opinion. He says that the establishment and the media are responsible for this manipulation, based on the misuse of statistics. The overall purpose is to “bring about the thing it claims is already happening”.
The author cites contemporary examples of the media attacking Gordon Brown and the “predicted” win of the Conservative Party at the 2010 general election, although Hitchens also described Brown, as a “dismal Marxoid“. Hitchens’ comments are based on his time as a reporter at Westminster. He says that political journalists are uninterested in serious political debate, and describes how a media reporting bias is attempting to facilitate a Tory general election win.
Remarkably, as a social Conservative, Hitchens states one of his motivations for writing the book was to frustrate this exercise.
Of course government influence isn’t the only problem. Neoliberal bias and “market forces” that result in a biased presentation include the ownership of the news source, concentration of media ownership, the selection of staff, the preferences of an intended audience, and pressure from advertisers. In short, we cannot escape the cultural saturation of pro-establishment views, and the establishment is of course both neoliberal and Conservative.
Predicting elections may seem interesting, fun, and perhaps even educational from an academic perspective, but it doesn’t add much to our democratic practices. Polls give an apparency of “data-driven journalism” but it produces a reductive “horse-race” narrative, in which political and policy context is mostly ignored with the numbers, accurate or not, pretty much being framed as all that matters. This trivialises our democracy and obscures the importance of critical thinking and informed choices regarding policies in influencing the public’s voting decisions.
Roger Pielke Jr, professor of Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, says: Rather than trying to see the future, political science might serve us better by helping citizens to create that future by clarifying the choices we face and their possible consequences for policy.”
“In treating politics like a sporting event, we diminish the partisanship, the choices, and the fundamental values that lie at the core of politics. I fear that data journalists have diminished our politics.”
When political opinion polls and the media appear to support one political party over another, there can be little doubt that this will have an influence on the psychology of voters, because it’s akin to declaring election winners before the election is actually held. It works rather like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the UK, the media is biased and leans heavily towards the right. Despite the fact that the Labour party currently has the highest party membership in western Europe, yet the leader is viciously attacked, and very often in a particularly nasty, personal way. The systematic way in which the media are actively attempting to delegitimise Corbyn is unworthy of a so-called democracy.
Some countries, such as France, Brazil and South Korea, impose a halt on election polling because of the bandwagon effect, which may skew the democratic process. The bandwagon effect describes a process of voters favoring a party that is doing well in the polls, while the underdog effect predicts that support will go to a party trailing in the polls.
There is also the possibility of a projection effect, with voters’ expectations conforming to their partisanship. There is rather less empirical evidence for the existence of underdog effect than there is for the existence of the bandwagon effect, which is based on individuals rallying to the perceived majority opinion, because of a fairly widespread psychological need for feeling we are part of a social ingroup, and a general tendency towards normative compliancce and social conformity.
We know that political opinion polls are certainly not always an accurate reflection of public opinion. Samples of the population selected to participate may be biased. For example, asking Daily Mail readers who they will vote for will almost certainly produce a majority right wing set of responses. However, if you ask the same question on Twitter, you are much more likely to get a Labour majority.
The polls do have an effect on voter intentions and on those trying to influence the outcome of elections.
Poll by ITV’s This Morning asked viewers which party leader they would prefer to see as Prime Minister.
More generally, in sociology and other social sciences, bias is defined as any tendency which prevents unprejudiced consideration of a research question. Bias can occur at any phase of research, including study design, or sampling and data collection, as well as in the process of data analysis and publication.
It is widely recognised that quantitative social research methods, such as surveys, may be susceptible to reduced reliability and research bias, sometimes entailing a process where the researchers performing the survey influence the results by selecting a specific kind of sample of the population, for example.
Human nature is complex and can not be reduced easily to just a simple either/or response. Bias may arise when researchers inadvertently or deliberately select subjects that are more likely to generate the desired results. Either way, this is a reversal of the normal processes governing science.
Additionally, there is also a risk of response bias – a general term for a wide range of cognitive biases that influence the responses of participants away from accuracy or truthfulness. These biases are most prevalent in the types of studies and research that involve participant self-report, in quantitative research such as surveys. Response biases can have a large impact on the validity of questionnaires, surveys and polls.
With all of this in mind, we need to think about how the conventional political polls are run, who runs them, who funds them and for what and whose purpose.
In the UK, some of the major polls are run by:
- Survation, pollster to The Mail on Sunday, Daily Mirror, Daily Record and Sky News. They say: “Survation also have an active strategy and campaign advisory business helping clients better understand customers & members, appreciate & help shape public opinion. We help our clients improve customer engagement and effectiveness of campaigns – be they charitable, political or commercial.”
- ComRes, retained pollster for the BBC and The Independent. It says on their site: “ComRes provides specialist research and insight to support reputation management, public policy and communications. For more than a decade we have used the latest developments in market and opinion research to inform strategies, change behaviours and define debates.”
- Ipsos MORI (formerly MORI). Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute works extensively for the Government of the United Kingdom, looking at public attitudes to key public services, and so informing social policy. Issues such as identity, social cohesion, loyalty, physical capital and the impact of place on attitudes are all key themes of the Institute’s work. The company also specialises in mass media, brand loyalty, marketing and advertising research.
- YouGov. – Stephan Shakespeare, the firm’s founder and CEO from 2010, once stood as a Conservative candidate for Colchester; he was also a Conservative Party pollster. The other founder, and CEO until 2010, is Nadhim Zahawi a British Conservative Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Stratford-on-Avon since 2010.
- ICM. They say “Understanding choice means you know how your audience feels, thinks and behaves. And how you can change that. We help influence choice in three areas. How do you energise your brand and communications? How do you improve your customers’ experience of you? How do you understand and influence citizens?
- Populus, official The Times pollster. They say: “Our Reputation & Strategy team works with the boards of global companies and public institutions to help them understand, influence, and improve their reputations. We are specialists in reputation. We understand why it matters, how to measure it, what drives it, who influences it, how to align it with existing activity, and what you should do to improve it.”
- TNS-BMRB. TNS changed their name to Kantar Public UK: a leading agency providing research and consultancy to UK policymakers. The company is structured around specific areas of marketing expertise: Brand & Communication; Innovation & Product Development; Retail & Shopper; Customer Experience; Employee Engagement; Qualitative; Automotive; and Political & Social.
All of these companies operate within a taken-for-granted neoliberal context, supporting various actors within the “global market place” paradigm, including governments, and therefore have a distinct ideological leaning and very clearly defined economic interests in maintaining the status quo.
Nudging voting decisions
It’s likely that Lynton Crosby’s international notoriety made him the subject of considerable press attention during the Conservative’s election campaign. However, there was another man also behind the Conservative campaign who was probably even more cunning. American strategist Jim Messina was hired as a strategy adviser in August 2013. Senior Conservative staff had been impressed by Barack Obama’s easy victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, crediting a relentless focus on data collection to Messina.
Access to this level of personal data was crucial to the success of the Conservative campaign: it determined which voters the party needed to target, contact and which type of message they would present. This process began with direct mail – personally addressed to voters in each target seat, who were divided into 40 different categories, with a slightly different tailored message for each one.
A telephone research company called Return Marketing (now known as Return Research) canvassed thousands of voters in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The calls they made rather tellingly targeted voters in specific, marginal constituencies.
Last year, the The Canary found evidence that the Conservatives may have broken a law that prohibits paying canvassers to support a specific candidate’s election. Whistleblowers speaking to an independent journalist have alleged that they were told to push poll voters (sway voters towards voting for the Conservatives by using loaded questions.)
Channel Four’s secret filming of the company Return Market’s “push polling”- polling designed to influence voters while masquerading as political research – during the EU referendum.
Pollsters, by and large, reject the charge that they herd public opinion, but social psychologists and behavioural economists inform us that there is more than a little truth in the bandwaggon effect theory.
Pollsters say they are careful to avoid influencing the outcome of a poll through priming and order effects in the survey design, but there are many other stumbling blocks to bear in mind. Social psychologists and the new behavioural economists say that in general people want to follow the crowd and do not like to challenge the normative order (which as a concept is in itself a very functionalist and conservative framing of society).
This is reflected in the nudge theorists’ use of social norming strategies, currently being adopted in public policies, which politically target some social groups to change their perceptions and behaviours. Social norming is based on an assumption of pluralistic ignorance by “choice architects“. Ultimately, the “choice architects” are the government, who, after all, are responsible for public policies which utilise experimental behavioural theory.
It’s of major concern that attempts by a government to surreptitiously change the perceptions, behaviours, emotions and decision-making of a population using experimental behavioural economic theory and discriminatory policies is not currently subject to public scrutiny and ethical standards. There is nothing standing in the way of “choice architects” using social norming to generate, manipulate or exploit pluralistic ignorance in order to simply maintain and justify the status quo.
So if we see an opinion poll telling us what the majority thinks, believe or is doing, because many have an inbuilt psychological bias towards following the crowd, we need to question potential motives underpinning that “information”.
The government know about the bandwaggon bias and are designing communications strategies and policies which play to this heuristic.
Think tanks, the media and the Conservative influence on public thinking
In the late 1960s and 1970s, movement conservatives persuaded wealthy individuals and businesses to establish a conservative intellectual and political infrastructure. This includes think tanks that resemble academic institutions but publish studies supporting Conservative and libertarian arguments. The American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1943, but was expanded dramatically with new funding in 1971. The Heritage Foundation was created in 1973 and the Cato Institute was founded in 1974.
In Britain, Tim Montgomerie, has described the Conservative movement as “the infrastructure outside of the party that supports small ‘c’ conservative values.”
A March 2009 presentation by Montgomerie and Matthew Elliott listed a number of organisations as part of the British Conservative movement:
Institute of Economic Affairs | Centre for Policy Studies | Reform | Adam Smith Institute | Policy Exchange | Centre for Social Justice | Civitas | International Policy Network | Taxpayers’ Alliance | ConservativeHome | New Culture Forum | Standpoint | Migration Watch UK | Countryside Alliance | Centre for Social Cohesion
Elliott compared this with the smaller size of the movement in 1997. According to Montgomerie, the comparison was intended to be indicative rather than comprehensive. An up to date, comprehensive powerbase list might include:
2020 Health | Atlantic Bridge | Adam Smith Institute | Better Off Out | Big Brother Watch | Bow Group | Bruges Group | Campaign for an English Parliament | Campaign for the Protection for Rural England | Centre for Policy Studies | Centre for Social Cohesion | Centre for Social Justice | Christian Conservative Fellowship | Civitas | Conservative Education Society | ConservativeHome | Conservative Intelligence | Conservative Party | Conservative Philosophy Group | Countryside Alliance | Democracy Institute | Direct Democracy | Drivers Alliance | Doctors for Reform | Economic Policy Centre | Enterprise Forum | European Foundation | European Policy Forum | Family Education Trust | First Defence | Forest | Freedom Alliance | Freedom Association | Freedom Zone | The Free Society | Global Vision | Global Warming Policy Foundation | Henry Jackson Society | Institute of Ideas | Institute of Directors | Institute of Economic Affairs | International Policy Network | Legatum Institute | Liberty League | Localis | Message Space | Migration Watch | New Culture Forum | Nothing British about the BNP | Nurses for Reform | Open Europe | Policy Exchange | Politeia | Progressive Vision | Reform | Reform Scotland | ResPublica | Safe Speed | Save Our Pubs and Clubs | Selsdon Group | Social Affairs Unit | Social Market Foundation | Spiked | Standpoint | Student Rights | Sunlight COPS | Taxpayers Alliance | TEA Party UK | UK National Defence Association | Young Britons Foundation, among others.
The problem is that think tanks synthesise, create and communicate “information” and give “advice” to the public and policy-makers, very often through the media. Think tanks tend to be far more media savvy than academics, often with staff who have backgrounds in the communication industry – media, PR or lobbying organisations.
This means that policy proposals, media narratives and public debate are much more likely to reflect Conservative ideology and favor pro-establishment outcomes, rather than being non-partisan, evidence-based and crucially, a representation of public needs. This of course turns democracy completely on its head.
As Professor Judy Sebba points out in Getting research into policy: the role of think tanks and other mediators: “Far from educating the public about evidence, think tanks are characterised by closedness and exclusivity. They do not subject their work to review by others and so the quality of their outputs are not assessed. Most worryingly, the media present the work of think tanks as credible sources of research and facts without any checks being in place.”
As key players in “democratic” politics and in shaping public opinion, think tanks have a responsibility to be transparent about their operations, but seldom are. A good question to ask is who funds them and what is their agenda?
The bandwaggon propaganda technique is also used as a key campaign strategy
More recently, I explored the role of intentionally deceitful political language and rhetoric in another article which highlights the role that the media play in shaping our public life. Media manipulation involves a series of related techniques in which partisans create images or arguments that favour their own particular interests. Such tactics may include the use of logical fallacies, psychological manipulations, deception, linguistic, rhetorical and propaganda techniques, and often involve the suppression of information or alternative perspectives by simply crowding them out.
Discrediting and minimisation are often used in persuading other people or social groups to stop listening to certain perspectives and arguments, or by simply diverting public attention elsewhere. An example of diversion is the recent widespread scapegoating of refugees and people who need social security, such as disabled people or those who have lost their jobs, in a bid to maintain the hegemony of neoliberalism and its values at a time when its failings were brought into sharp focus during and following the global crisis – also exposing failings in the behaviours and practices of the government and the vulture capitalist financier class.
Neoliberalism always gravitates towards increasing inequality, extending and deepening poverty. Fear mongering is sometimes used with a diversion or misdirection propaganda technique to mask this, and may be pervasive. Sometimes politicians and media commentators suddenly take a debate in a weird and irrational but predictable direction to avoid democratic accountability.
During the coalition and Conservative governments, the tabloids have chosen and framed most of the debates that have dominated domestic politics in the UK, ensuring that immigration, welfare, law and order, the role of the state, and Britain’s relationship with Europe have all been discussed in increasingly right wing terms, while almost ironically, the government have colonised progressive rhetoric to cover their intentions. It also serves to further discredit the narrative of the left.
However, there is therefore a growing chasm between Conservative discourse, and policy intentions and outcomes. There isn’t a bridge between rhetoric and reality.
The Conservatives commonly use a nudge technique called “social norming” – a Behavioural Insights Team variant of the bandwaggon propaganda technique – particularly for General Election campaigning. It’s about manipulating a false sense of consensus, and normalising Conservative ideology. It’s also about prompting behavioural change, and as such, this method is a blatant attempt to influence the voting behaviours of the public, by suggesting that many others have already “joined” the Conservative “cause” and are happier or better off for doing so. The technique uses societal pressures to play on several basic emotional elements of human nature.
Oh, and then there is the basic technique of telling lies, of course.
And using euphemism:
Social norming is an appeal to emotional needs to fit in and belong, and also, to be on the side that wins. As stated earlier, it has a kind of self fulfilling prophecy element to it, too. It’s used in advertising – words like “everyone”, “we”, “our” and “most people” or “many” are used a lot to sell brands and imply a popularity of certain products that usually isn’t real.
Political slogans like the almost farcical “country that works for everyone” and the previous “all in it together” are examples of poor attempts at social norming. It’s aimed at shifting our normative framework to accommodate the status quo, too, regardless of how the accounts don’t tally with reality. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
It’s worth noting that “We are all in it together” was a slogan made famous in Terry Guiliams’s dystopic black comedy Brazil. Cameron certainly had a moment of recycling propaganda with grim irony there.
Propaganda techniques commonly used by the Conservatives
As mentioned previously, bandwagon and “inevitable-victory” appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that “everyone else is taking.” Inevitable victory invites those not already on the bandwagon to join those already convinced they are on the road to certain victory. Those already or at least partially on the bandwagon are reassured that staying aboard is their best course of action.
Join the crowd is a technique that reinforces people’s natural desire to be on the winning side. This technique is used to convince the audience that a programme is an expression of an irresistible mass movement and that it is in their best interest to join. As an example, see Grant Shapps under fire over website ‘sham’ which used models featured on Australian university site to make Tory activists look ‘youthful and in touch’ with Britain. Also see Behaviourism.
Common man – The ordinary folks or Common Man technique is an attempt to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the target audience. Propagandists use ordinary language and mannerisms (and clothe their message in face-to-face and audiovisual communications) in attempting to identify their point of view with that of the average person, and to naturalise it.
Ad hominem is a Latin phrase which has come to mean personally attacking your opponent, as opposed to challenging their propositions and arguments. A recent example is Boris Johnson’s strange attack on Jeremy Corbyn, calling him a “benign herbivore” but at the same time, also a “mutton-headed old mugwump.”
The word comes from Massachusett, an Algonquian language spoken by the Massachusett people, from whom the US state takes its name. The word mugquomp, meaning “war leader” or “great chief”, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for an officer, captain, and duke.
Sadly, Johnson, languishing in his own in solipsism, has clearly invented his own personal meaning, though he really should pay heed to Wittgenstein, who warned of the dangers of private language (the idea of a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent.) Then he wouldn’t sound like such a mutton-headed numpty. Johnson, like many Conservatives, has problems reconciling his “inner” (subjective) experience with the “outside” (objective) world.
By the early 1800s the form “mugwump” had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss. J K Rowling was probably thinking of the earlier meaning when she used the word for the head of the International Confederation of Wizards in Harry Potter, the Supreme Mugwump.
Ad nauseam – This approach uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth. This approach works best when media sources are limited and controlled by the propagator. Joseph Goebbels, not known to be driven by the passionate inspiration of the moment, but by the result of sober psychological calculation, was particularly talented in utilising this approach. Iain Duncan Smith has previously shown a similar penchant for repeated mendacity. Then there is Theresa May’s ad nauseum slogans: ” A strong and stable leadership in the national interest,” and “A country that works for everyone.”
Which brings us to the Glittering Generalities technique. This another category of the seven main propaganda techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. It’s a device often used by the media and in political rhetoric to persuade us to approve and accept something without examining any evidence.
This is a propaganda technique purposefully designed to divert and distract, so that people are less likely to develop their own critical thoughts. This said, the purpose of all forms of propaganda is to tell you what to think, and not how to think.
Glittering Generalities capitalise on increasingly sloganised political discourses, leading to a loss of conceptual clarity, over-idealisation and they also reflect conceptual miserliness – a tendency for some people to prefer simple, superficial and easy answers, rather than having to expend time and effort to grapple with complexity, critical analysis and the need to weigh up evidence. They also succeed in conveying codified messages that reference underpinning discourses which are often prejudiced and controversial, but presented in a way that bypasses any detailed scrutiny, as a consensus view and “common sense.” An example is the slogan “Taking our country back” as it references an underpinning racist, supremicist discourse, whilst sounding vaguely rightous, because someone nicked England, or hid it on another planet.
Glittering Generalities imply – or signpost us – via common stock phrases to our own tacit knowledge, which often lies below our current focal awareness – prior information, beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models, stereotypes and so on, creating the impression that the person using the terms and phrases understands and sees the world as you do, creating a false sense of rapport by doing so. Or the feeling that some very important recognition has been made.
Glittering Generalities propaganda is sometimes based on a kind of logical fallacy known as Equivocation – it is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (usually by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)
Glittering Generalities is a technique very often used by people who seek to stifle debate, sidestep accountability and suppress democratic processes. Because Glittering Generalities tend to obscure or gloss over serious areas of disagreement, they hide controversy and submerge alternative propositions.
As such, Glittering Generalities may often be used to neutralise opposition to dominant ideas. It’s a way of disguising partisanship and of manipulating and reducing democratic choices. It’s part of a process of the political micro-management of your beliefs and decision-making.
Here is a bit of refreshing straight talk for a change:
I’m not above a bit of sloganeering myself. In 2015, I came up with “Tory cuts cost lives”, which my friend, Robert Livingstone, turned into a couple of memes.
This one recent one went very viral very quickly, glad to see it so widely used:
Finally, I thought I would share that the widely used word “selfservative” came from a disillusioned Tory I knew called Derek. I used it a lot on social media, and my friend, Robert Livingstone, popularised it in his memes. Derek defected to Labour and vanished from the Conservative Facebook groups where Robert and I used to have surprisingly civilised debate with him.
I will be writing more about electioneering, exposing propaganda and other techniques of persuasion, over the next couple of weeks.
Propaganda Techniques (Summary)
Department for Work and Pensions officials admit to using fake claimant’s comments to justify benefit sanctions – a very basic propaganda technique called “telling lies”
Our attitudes and beliefs are being manipulated, our decision-making is being “nudged,” citizens are being micro-managed and policed by the state:
“In a white paper authored by Facebook’s security team and published on Thursday, the company detailed well-funded and subtle techniques used by nations and other organizations to spread misleading information and falsehoods for geopolitical goals. These efforts go well beyond “fake news”, the company said, and include content seeding, targeted data collection and fake accounts that are used to amplify one particular view, sow distrust in political institutions and spread confusion.
“We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” said the company.
“In general, Facebook said it faced a new challenge in tackling “subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.
“Facebook described much of the activity as “false amplification” – which included the mass creation of fake accounts; the coordinated sharing of content and engagement with that content (such as likes); and the distribution of “inflammatory and sometimes racist memes”. – BBC
In its effort to clamp down on information operations, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in France before the presidential election. The company said it was a priority to remove suspect accounts with high volumes of posting activity and the biggest audiences.
The company also explained how it monitored “several situations” that fit the pattern of information operations during the US presidential election. The company detected “malicious actors” using social media to share information stolen from other sources such as email accounts “with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets”. This technique involved creating dedicated websites to host the stolen data and then creating social media accounts and pages to direct people to it.
Nor did Facebook attribute the manipulation to any nation state, although it said that the company’s investigation “does not contradict” the findings of a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence that outlined Russian involvement in the election.
Russia has also been implicated in the hacking of French presidential frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, according to a report by researchers with Japanese anti-virus firm Trend Micro, published this week.
Facebook pledged to monitor attempts to manipulate the platform, to develop new ways of identifying fake accounts, educate at-risk people about how to keep their information safe, and support civil society programs around media literacy.
“We recognize that, in today’s information environment, social media plays a sizable role in facilitating communications – not only in times of civic events, such as elections, but in everyday expression,” said the report. “In some circumstances, however, we recognize that the risk of malicious actors seeking to use Facebook to mislead people or otherwise promote inauthentic communications can be higher.” – The Guardian
“The JTRIG unit of GCHQ is so notable because of its extensive use of propaganda methods and other online tactics of deceit and manipulation. The 2011 report on the organization’s operations, published today, summarizes just some of those tactics:
Throughout this report, JTRIG’s heavy reliance on its use of behavioral science research (such as psychology) is emphasized as critical to its operations. That includes detailed discussions of how to foster “obedience” and “conformity”:
An “I told you so” moment from Glenn Greewald
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