US – Wacky Statistics Abound On Civil Liberties Topics – 25 November 2013

Ooh, nothing like a big screamy headline. “Public Supports NSA Spying On Their Email, Neighbors And Foreign Leaders”! Hide the kids, the Ugly American is on the loose!

This online poll claims that the public likes the NSA spying on their E-mails, it would seem, on the basis of conflating two of the questions they asked. When asked if they thought NSA spying was “acceptable”, 51 percent of those polled said they did. When asked if they thought the US government had viewed the content of their E-mails and/or phone calls, 43.9% said they did think that.

Okay, so maximum, then, 43.9% could think that both of those things are true, that NSA spying is acceptable and that the US government already knows the contents of personal E-mails and phone calls. That’s a minority of Americans, not a majority. Plus, there’s the question of how overlapping those two groups really are. Probably a lot of people who think the US government is reading their E-mails and listening in on their phone calls are _not_ going to say the NSA is within bounds in its spying. Likewise, probably a lot of people who think the NSA is within bounds in its spying are _not_ going to say the US government is reading their E-mails and listening in on their phone calls. So basically, what I’m saying here is that it is quite unlikely the group that thinks both of these things could be as high as 43.9%. The intepretation of the stats presented here seems completely goofy, unless there is some kind of crosstabulation data that suggests this is exactly the same group, and I really, really doubt that.

Another example of how wacky this article’s claims are has to do with the phrasing of one of the poll questions. The interpretation of the article is that Americans are not concerned about spying on leaders of countries that are allied with the US. But the question being referenced on the actual poll is this: “The NSA has been secretly monitoring the phone calls of world leaders. Some are known allies of the US. This is: * Acceptable for investigating terrorism. * Unacceptable for investigating terrorism.” So the question actually leaves open the possibility that the phone calls tapped could have been of the leader of a country not at all allied with the US, and possibly associated with terrorism. Not surprisingly, with that option still in the mix, many people said to go ahead and tap that phone. More than likely, they weren’t thinking of François Hollande and Angela Merkel there, they were thinking of leaders in places like Iran or North Korea, or Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. So I would think claiming the response to this question as an indicator that Americans are really down with listening in on French and German leaders is a pretty iffy maneuvre.

What does come through, loud and clear, from the questions that were asked, is that Americans are okay with ceding some ground on a package of absolutist civil liberties in order to deal with terrorism. That’s been obvious since the first of the Snowden journalistic bursts, and I imagine not much has happened since that has convinced Americans that none of that matters and people should now be allowed to pack a piece on board a 747, since it’s obviously very wrong to search luggage.

One question asked does demonstrate that Americans have some vague sense that their overall package of civil liberties is declining. A majority (55.8%) say that “the US government’s anti-terror policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties”. However, no question establishes what it is, in the eyes of those individuals, that “goes too far”, and the article’s author, who crows elsewhere that the polling methods allowed for respondents to add comments to their answers, reveals none of those context-providing comments for us here, as he did for other questions. Speaking only for myself, I do have some civil liberties concerns about government overclassifying documents. Thus, perhaps I’m part of that 55.8%? But those of you who read me often know the main thrust of my opinions about the NSA controversies is that civil liberties molehills are being made into mountains by unscrupulous ideologues. So I guess my counsel is to make of all this what you will, but with both eyes open as to how people _could_ have answered that question.

Definitely, this article’s interpretation of the polling data comes from a set of particular biases – one comment makes this more obvious than the others, in fact.

“No one, not even the most die-hard security hawks, have said that it’s possible, legal, or ethical to spy on more than a few thousand Americans. The best estimates put the number around 300. Facebook received requests for data on 20,000 users, but we don’t know what was requested or given. Either way, spying on +100 million Americans would require an extraordinary act of Congress and a budget for the NSA somewhere north of America’s current debt. Respondents, however, are not concerned…”

If that’s true – if it would _require_ that kind of budgetary spending – then the fact that Americans are not currently paying the NSA a budget “somewhere north of America’s current debt” indicates that “spying on +100 million Americans” is _not occurring_.

I know…me and my logic, right? The problem with conspiratorial thinking is that when something that can’t be true if the conspiracy is to be taken seriously emerges, the tendency is to gloss over its importance. Instead of going “Whoa, where is the money for this massive surveillance coming from?” (a question which would require him to fashion a wild and involved answer, which would in turn be likely to require a patch when it founders on the shoals of reality), he decides instead to get people mad about the fictitious money they are spending on this fictitious huge spying program. It is often a feature of conspiracism that contradictory facts can be embraced at once, with no cognitive dissonance, so long as they both seem to support a suspicion people want to have – in this case, that government is bad.

Anyway, just a little lesson the perils of emos running opinion polls. Next time, let’s ask questions and fashion interpretations based on what the respondents actually meant to say, okay? Just a thought.

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