Deception in Polling

Recently, articles were trending with the finding that a particular candidate’s group of supporters would bomb a fictional city [for an example article: Click here].

Survey researchers tend to immediately seek out the methodological details of the poll when we see headlines like these. In this case, very few methodological details about the poll are available on the company’s website [PPP Poll Release] and certainly not enough detail to meet the basic AAPOR Transparency Initiative’s requirements (of which the company is not a member).

Without much methodological information, I do not claim to dispute the findings of this particular poll, but I would like to spend a moment considering the potential meaning and impact of this finding. Responding anything other than the “not sure” option to this question isn’t necessarily an indication that a respondent believes the city from Aladdin is an actual place, but rather a likely indication of general sentiment concerning military action in the Middle East.

Respondents don’t expect polls to intentionally deceive them. Those responding trust the researcher to ask valid and fair questions. Unfortunately headlines and poll questions like these erode the public’s trust in the field of survey research and further damages our ability to gather public opinion, behavioral, and other social science data for purposes far more important than sensational headlines.

It is one thing to carefully and respectfully design methodological question-wording experiments to advance the science of survey research to help us to write questions that are better at measuring public opinion, and quite another to use deception to collect data with the intention of being click-bait. In all likelihood, it is the misuse of methodological research that informed the creators of this poll that they would be likely to find a sensational, headline-making result by asking this question.

As part of our commitment to our respondents and our profession, Castleton Polling Institute will not undertake work that aims to intentionally deceive our respondents for the purposes attention-grabbing headlines. Our intentions when we ask to you to participate in research are not to trick you or ask unfair questions, but rather to be able to report on the public’s true opinion.