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How they fool people with polls

President Aquino’s camp has been adept in manipulating media and polls to manufacture a counterfeit public opinion, and then claim it as “people’s wisdom.” Malacañang spokesmen even cavalierly justify former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s anomalous arrest and the assault on the Supreme Court on grounds that “public opinion” supports these moves.

Opinion surveys are legitimate research tools. To mystify their findings though as “the voice of the people” and base our moral compass and our sense of justice and fairness on poll findings is utter inanity or crass populism.

Such polls quantify people’s current views on issues, or on consumer products.  But people do not get their ideas about issues from thin air, as European scholars like Jurgen Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu have expounded.  In modern mass society, especially one where poverty bars the majority from getting accurate information and even having the intellectual tools for rational evaluation of an issue, most people get their ideas on issues almost solely from media.

If media for some reason are biased and incessantly scream allegations that a particular government official is corrupt on their front pages—with his rebuttals buried in a few sentences somewhere—people cannot but perceive that that official is corrupt.  If the press consistently reports that “X” is the case, even if it is false, the majority of respondents in an opinion poll will perceive “X” as true. How can they not, if media are their sole source of information?

The horrendous consequences of misunderstanding opinion polls have been demonstrated.  Because US media was uncritical of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction,” 80 percent of Americans polled believed these, giving the green light to the American invasion of that oil rich country in 2003.  No WMDs were found.  By 2005, 60 percent opposed the war.

Case 1: “The Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Most Corrupt Institution—Pulse Asia.”  The AFP in opinion polls before was never perceived to be among the country’s most corrupt institutions. It was usually the police, the Department of Public Works and Highways, and the Bureau of Customs.  In March 2011 though, respondents in a Pulse Asia poll reported it as the most corrupt institution.

Why? The survey was taken during the Senate’s televised investigations on alleged AFP corruption, which hogged the headlines for many days.  Respondents naturally replied that it was the most corrupt institution, even if the allegations were about anomalies five years earlier and even if the AFP had already overhauled its system to prevent corruption.

This trick of using polls by President Aquino’s propagandists involves the following steps. First, publicize an allegation by a cooperative journalist or by an ally in Congress, ideally have investigations by Congress, and have a subservient press run these as banner stories for days, with “outraged” opinion writers rousing people’s passions. Second, undertake a poll on the issue, when people have just been barraged in the press by the allegations.  Voila! The poll findings that so and so is corrupt, the result of the press barrage in step one, are proclaimed as “public opinion.” Third step: Publicize the poll widely, so that the bandwagon effect comes into play.

Case 2: “President Arroyo, the most corrupt president—Pulse Asia.” Of course the majority in that poll picked Arroyo as the most corrupt president! The poll was made from Oct. 26 to 31, 2007, when people were barraged with front-page news every day of allegations—even today unproven—of bribes given to local officials by Arroyo and the NBN-ZTE controversy.  But most respondents weren’t even born or adults yet during the Marcos regime. Pulse Asia in effect demanded the respondents to quickly retrieve from their memory all the cases of corruption for each of the five presidents, such as Marcos’ Swiss bank accounts or Estrada’s P2 billion ill-gotten bank deposits. It was indisputably a loaded survey, intended for political propaganda, which no ethical, professional pollster would have undertaken.

But Pulse Asia was bankrolled and run at that time by Mr. Aquino’s cousins, Antonio Cojuangco and Rapa Cojuangco Lopa. Rabid anti-Arroyo Sen. Sergio Osmena Jr. financed this particular poll.  With this unscrupulous poll, anti-Arroyo politicians, unthinking journalists, and even sloppy academics would routinely state that she was the most corrupt Philippine president. (An aside on opinion polls’ “truth”: Surveys during Harry Truman’s term made him the most unpopular US president, although historians now see him as among America’s five best presidents.)

Case 3:  “Ombudsman Merci Guiterrez, the most unpopular official—Pulse Asia.”  While the media were in a frenzy from February to March last year against the former ombudsman, Pulse Asia undertook its poll, and naturally Gutierrez came out as the most unpopular government official at that time, thereby egging on the political hyenas in Congress to gang up on her.

Case 4:  “Corona the least trusted official —Pulse Asia.”   Mr. Aquino’s operatives are now onto their old trick.  As media incessantly blast Chief Justice Renato Corona, Pulse Asia undertakes its opinion survey and, naturally he comes out as “the least trusted official”—and therefore, the “people will decide” to take him out.

The Supreme Court and its Chief Justice for decades have had the highest trust ratings. That changed when a well-funded demolition job was launched against them starting 2010 (starting with the plagiarism issue), initially very covertly by an associate justice lusting to be chief justice, and then by the President himself, furious over the Court’s decision that will wrench Hacienda Luisita from his clan’s clutches.