When Opinion Polls are Manipulated


In a Newsweek poll last week, 60 percent of Americans said they oppose mass detentions against Muslim-Americans if another 9/11 style attack were to occur. Twenty-five percent supported such a move.

In an attempt to downplay the latter number–a quarter of Americans–Brian Briaker of Newsweek highlighted the majority by emphasizing the phrase. He called it “a solid majority.”

It may be solid, but the minority deserves much bigger attention. Remember when, in March, a Pew poll showed that 13 percent of Muslim-Americans said they support the use of violence against civilians “in some cases”?

At the time, the world seemed to ignore the “solid majority” of Muslim-Americans (80 percent) who rejected the use of violence “in all cases.” Pundits around the country preyed on the minority to show what they portrayed as a microcosm of violent behavior entrenched in Islam.

(It’s worth mentioning that the soon-to-depart Star Tribune reporter, Sharon Schmickle, employing her degree in statistics, found serious flaws on the Pew Poll. While the margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points for the entire poll, it climbed to 10 percentage points on the subgroup that found the 13 percent Muslim-Americans who justify violence in some cases.)

Conversely, when the highly reputable Program on International Public Affairs (PIPA) at the University of Maryland released in December a comparative public opinion on the United States and Iran, it found that 51 percent of Americans approve the following statement: “Bombings and other types of attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are sometimes justified.”

Only 16 percent of Iranians, it turned out, approve that statement.

In fact, Kenneth Ballen, the founder and president of Terror Free Tomorrow, wrote in a February op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor that “Americans are more approving of terrorist attacks against civilians than any major Muslim country except for Nigeria.”

Hard to say whether such numbers are microcosms of deeply held attitudes against Muslims here and globally. But the qualm that erupted after the Pew poll and the seamless coverage of the PIPA and the Newsweek polls, respectively, is the problem I have with the way public opinions are cherry-picked.

It seems to me that, though public opinion polls are conducted to collect a sample view of the target population, the findings are invariably applied tendentiously. To pigeonhole a portion of Americans, the news media, for its all its wisdom, seems to dramatize one small but worrisome finding over another not-so-small but equally unnerving result.

The Newsweek poll is particularly significant, because it ups the ante for Muslim-Americans who have to live with the reality that roughly one of four Americans endorses a mass detention evocative of the Japanese-American detentions following Pearl Harbor.

If anything, all polls reflect a natural human variation of opinions on everything. While some findings are inevitably more sensitive than others, Americans are put on the edges of their seats on the finding of one poll but are blacked out on another more reflective one.