Saturday, 31 December 2016

Clickbait articles dividing an already divided country even more

Yougov and The Economist just published a poll on political conspiracy theories that was designed to produce outrage and clicks on stories how stupid the other tribe is and how we rational people are above that. Secular Talk, a popular high-quality YouTube pundit, made two stories out of it: "50% Of Dems Think 'Russia Tampered With Vote Tallies' To Elect Trump" and "Nearly Half Of Trump Voters Believe Hillary Is Pimping Kids."

In the poll Americans were asked: "Do you think the following statements are true or not true?". One of the conspiracies was: "54. Conspiracy Theories – Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President."

The problem was that people could only chose between: "Definitely true", "Probably true", "Probably not true", and "Definitely not true". There was no option: "I do not know". "I do not know" would have been the rational answer. "Definitely no evidence" would be another fine option that was not available.

Especially given the lack of audits of the votes and the undemocratic active resistance of some Republican politicians against audits "probably not true" is as wrong as "Probably true". As an aside, in a democracy there should be no doubt that votes are counted correctly, every citizen should be able to follow the trail from the filled in ballot the voter put into the ballot box to the final count and audits should actually count paper ballots by hand and naturally be free/automatic.

The strangest people are those that said "Definitely true" or "Definitely not true".

The article made the story more juicy by combining the 17% of Democrats answering "Definitely true" with the 35% answering "Probably true" to "50% of Dems".

Conspiracies do exist, if there was more than one person involved in making this poll, my personal conspiracy would be that the question was crafted to produce artificial outrage, clicks and revenue.

Another conspiracy question was: "52. Conspiracy Theories – Leaked email from some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers contained code words for pedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse - what some people refer to as ’Pizzagate’."

Most of the Pizzagate Republicans (40%) said "probably true" rather than "definitely true" (9%) and again had no way to say "I do not know". Most American likely should have answered "I do not know" because they do not follow the conspiracy media that closely.

Such pedophilia conspiracies naturally exist, but in case of Pizzagate there is no evidence for it. "Definitely no evidence" would be the right answer, but that could again not be answered.

The question is also badly phrased. The hacked emails did contained the word "pizza", which is claimed to be a code word used by pedophiles. Thus if you take the question too literally you could even answer that the question is true.

These answers are sad, but no way as bad as the headline "Nearly Half Of Trump Voters Believe Hillary Is Pimping Kids" suggests. The poll is the saddest part of this story.

1. If you see a poll, check the exact formulation of the question and the answers, especially when it is not a standard question that is regularly asked and the poll is thus more likely intended to generate clicks.
2. Even reputable sources, like The Economist and Secular Talk, can be wrong.
3. large parts of the media make money manufacturing outrage. To reduce this do your due diligence before you spread an emotional story. If that means spreading less stories: fine. News is no longer scarce, quality is.

This polls was a way to produce clicks and divide an already divided country even more.

Related reading

5 things the media does to manufacture outrage.

The BBC will continue fake debates on climate science on false balance ("due weight") and fake public debates.

Believe me, the GOP needs to open itself to rational debate.


Millicent said...

The problem with the "definitely" category is the crude granularity of the choices. If you are 99.999% sure do you have to go with definitely or probably?

Victor Venema said...

That is another problem. Everyone answering the question likely has its own threshold from "probably" to "definitively". And everyone reading the article on the poll as well (had they shown this data). Being human the threshold likely also depends on whether the fact fits to your worldview.