Ilmar Raag: Another polling scandal is required

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Piret Kooli/ERR

Media political polls tend to amplify the opinions of the more passionate and extreme minded people in society, filmmaker and communications expert Ilmar Raag says. Even if we take highly polarizing topics such as same-sex marriage or immigration, there still remains about 30 percent of society who do not care much about even these things, Raag adds in the daily commentary for ERR's Vikerraadio.

In fact, we should be grateful to Isamaa, because many people got to learn there was such a thing as scientific ethics thanks to them. This may seem like an insignificant by-product of public discussion, but this is exactly how social consciousness gets enriched.

So far as my taste goes, explanations that ethical problems also affect the results of the studies, as people may not answer honestly if the questions appear offensive to them, sounded perhaps too weak. But let it be so...

Next I would like to also request some scandals about these polls be presented in the media, since they have also created a false impression, as if to stay that they objectively represent the attitudes of society. 

In fact, we would all need to acquire more knowledge in order to understand the limits of these various polls. More than anything, we need to recognize when a survey is only giving us but a fragment of the truth, rather than the whole picture.

For example, if [Vikerraadio] listeners were posed the question "did you get enough rest this summer?", the responses would not be representative of the entire Estonian populace, but only those people who are currently listening to Vikerraadio. 

In addition, not everyone who listens to Vikerradio wants or can be bothered to answer. Consequently, the results are skewed more towards those who care the most about this topic.

Scientifically speaking, the difference between a study and a radio vox pop like this primarily lies in the fact that a survey conducted via the media does not give us any information about those people who remained completely indifferent to the issues.

Yet these are usually the most numerous. In other words, polls conducted through the media distort the public image, by overly empowering the more passionate and extreme.

Even if you take highly polarizing issues like same-sex marriage or immigration, there's still about 30 percent of society that doesn't really care about these matters, just as we have nearly 40 percent of the populace who do not consider voting in elections worthwhile.

The indifferent play a big major role in the decisions made in a democracy, yet there are so few of them represented in the media.

In contrast, we have the "Vox Populi" type shows across several radio stations in effect being given free rein to amplify more fringe views, an area long noted as a breeding ground of incompetent and extremely negative opinions. 

But people listen to these types of shows, something which is important to radio. Negative content in the media exerts a strange type of attraction. We may find a program highly repugnant, but we listen or watch it through to the end, only to then go and vent our outrage elsewhere.

Should the media then abandon polls going forward? No, not at all. Even if the answers given are not representative of the of whole society, they still reveal the presence of certain attitudes. And that is valuable information in and of itself.

Let us look at a demonstration in the street by way of a comparison. If, for example, a political demonstration in Estonia attracts 10,000 participants, while that may seem like an insanely large crowd, even then it makes up less than one percent of the total population.

What, then, can we conclude from such mass demonstrations? First and foremost the fact that there are people in society who care about a certain topic so much that they will immediately come out on to the streets. We can also deduce that there are probably other citizens who hold similar attitudes [to the protesters], but on the basis just of these demonstrations, we cannot conclude that the entire nation has come to protest, or for that matter, to celebrate.

Naturally, the gap between apparent vastness and the actual relative size can be misleading. If you stand in the middle of Vabaduse väljak, the masses involved in the larger demonstrations make you feel that the only opponents can be those strange politicians on Toompea, but in reality you would still only be representing a minority.

The best example of this in Estonia is EKRE, which has used the means of demonstrations more than the other political parties, and which in their emotional theatricality claim to appeal to the general public. 

In fact, the number of supporters of their specific topics within society remains at a maximum of 20-30 percent.

But let's return to the media. Very often, we do not outline the error margins of our surveys. Let's imagine, for example, purely theoretically, that one strange day Postimees, decided to hold a survey on its website which resulted in 70 percent of the respondents saying are in favor of making a third child mandatory for every Estonian woman.

Political activists would certainly jump on that, while then these interest groups would not care one iota that 90 percent of the Estonian population did not consider it necessary to answer the question at all. 

In the same way, we might not find out, for example, that men aged 50+ predominated among the respondents, because again, surveys conducted by the media do not talk about the representativeness of a sample. 

You could still get a catchy headline out of this survey and its results, however. 

But headlines rarely represent the truth, especially in online media.

Ultimately we need a scandal to draw attention to the questions that the majority of respondents simply do not have the information at hand to answer. 

For example: "What will the Estonian budget deficit look like at the end of this year?" 

In reality, there are about 50 people in Estonia who could answer this question on the basis of fact, but if it is presented via the media, we can suddenly see ourselves getting thousands of respondents.

 However, were we to analyze the results of a poll like that, can we understand that we would actually be talking about a mixture of rumors and wishful thinking, and not a serious economic forecast?

The trouble with sociology-based polls is that their results are in fact seldom dramatic. 

Most often, they reveal that most people think differently than you do. Not always, but very often. 

Not on all questions, but with most. 

That may be uncomfortable, but it is democracy after all.

Ilmar Raag is a member of the Parempoolsed political party.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kaupo Meiel

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: