The internet is a mighty universe larger and more powerful than can be believed.
Part of the reason for this is because technology like smartphones bring the information superuperdooperdooper highway into every corner of our lives 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to the comments section of newspapers and news videos online.
Of course, opinions are like buttholes, everyone’s got one.
In the last few months a number of major decisions involving the human race’s future have been made. As it stands right now, there are a few more biggies on the way in the next couple of months. In America, the stakes are high. So high, in fact, we are all getting a bit antsy.
Once upon a time, the answers to the big questions would emerge at the appropriate moment. In 2016 it seems that finding out the result at the end of a vote is not something worth waiting for. Everyone wants to know what everyone is thinking and how they will vote now. Right now. Before they vote.
Even if that means asking people to reveal their choices before they have all the facts.
The fastest way to determine what is going on is to hold a poll.
Polling (which sounds vaguely rude) has become a go-to way to predict an answer, even if they often prove to be wrong. In fact, telephone and online polls are often so inaccurate that it’s a wonder that they hold any water at all. Don’t believe me? I have one word for you. Brexit.
Before the vote, journalists and politicians spent countless hours inside their own echo chambers rambling on about the information they thought they had at hand given the polling figures being published by every news organisation in Britain.
When the day finally arrived and the results came in , punters and pollsters were shocked. It turned out that the figures they had cleaved to their bosoms were not the same as the ones that came through on the actual night of the vote. It was almost as if the pre-event polls were somehow……not reflective of the final numbers. A large number of the delightful Pie Graphs and Bar charts were……inaccurate.
Why is this? How does this work? How does this happen? Heavy duty Public Relations firms pay a lot of money to collect data and analysis it, reading out the findings like the holy grail of public opinion, but anyone can set up a survey online. Equally, anyone with a passing knowledge of cyber hacking, or the ability to mobilise large groups of people can skew the results.
The reality is that anyone with an internet connection and a little know can set up an online voting platform. Large companies such as Survey Monkey even offer step by step guided tours to assist everyday human beings to set up the survey of their choice.
If a poll is set up to reflect the people being asked the question, the answer is likely to be a fait accompli. If you want to know how many vegetarians there are per capita, and you set the survey to pop up in the middle of a website devoted to animal rights, will the results reflect an actual measure of the number of non-meat eaters or will vegetarians appear to be taking over the planet? Similarly, if the leader of a political movement employs a company to survey a vast cross- section of the community using leading questions that point in favour of that movement, the results will lean towards that leaders cause.
Even so called unbiased surveys can easily be manipulated. Think about who fills in surveys. Is it you? Do you have time? Do you have an agenda? Do you feel like shaking things up? Are you bored? Are you drunk? Are you angry? Do you feel like having a laugh, even if the only person laughing is you? Are you any good at telling a total stranger that you might not be as liberal or open as you think might be palatable? Do you like keeping secrets? Move along, you might not be the Droid we are looking for.
Following the Brexit vote the most frequently searched question on Google was “What is the EU?”, followed by “ How will Brexit affect The UK?”
Well now, that’s useful.
Had the polls included questions like “Do you know what the EU is?” or “Are you stupid?” to their survey, things may have been a little clearer. Online polls taken BEFORE the vote suggested there might be a move away from remain, but traditional pools predicted the decision to stay in would be overwhelming. Clearly the people asked by more traditional methods thought saying they were pro-EU in a survey would be the best box to tick. However somewhere between that answer and the bit of paper in the ballot box there was a disconnect. It made polling look distinctly out of touch, and yet we still look at these things as if they mean something.
This week’s debate between Trump and Clinton is another case in point. Initially, online polls gave it to Trump, but the figures were so suspect that the shadow of doubt as to the usefulness of the statistics has fallen right across them. It’s so bad they are calling it ‘Junk Data’.
No matter. For those in the business, a win is a win, even if it’s not real. Trump even boasted he won the CBS online poll….there was no CBS online poll. Clinton clearly performed better, and yet journalists quoted online polls within minutes of the end of the debate, some even while it was ongoing. Will any of this be reflected in the final outcome? We will just have to wait and see. But like kids who get up early and shake Christmas gifts to try and guess what’s inside, we seem unable to help ourselves. We want to know what everyone else is thinking. Now. Why is another question. What does it matter who everyone else is voting for? Who are YOU voting for? What is YOUR opinion? YOUR idea? Why do polls even matter if they present questionable information that can be so easily manipulated and misinterpreted?
Why is our addiction to pre-judgement treated as anything more than fodder for content hungry news cycles? It’s guess work at best, and gambling at worst, and if we can’t recognise the flaws in the system then we are doomed to ride these imaginary rollercoasters for months at a time. This may be thrilling at first, but like anything that is designed to disrupt our equilibrium, at the end we all just end up feeling a little bit sick for having been taken for a ride.