Question wording and changing attitudes in acceptance of surveillance

by Andrew Gelman on June 10, 2013 · 4 comments

in Methodology,Political Parties,Public opinion

John just posted some survey results comparing attitudes about secret National Security Agency wiretapping, comparing polls in 2006 and 2013. At first glance, support for the surveillance seems slightly higher than before, with 51% supporting it in 2006, and 56% supporting it now.

But look carefully at the questions:

In 2006: “secretly listening . . . without court approval”

In 2013: “getting secret court orders . . .”

So, more people support wiretapping now—-but the survey stipulates that the NSA got court orders. Sure, they’re “secret” court orders, but it means that a judge is somewhere in the loop. In contrast, the 2006 poll asked about extrajudicial wiretapping.

On the other direction, the 2013 question refers to “millions of Americans,” whereas the 2006 question asks about a more restricted class: “people suspected of terrorist involvement.”

I don’t know how important the question wording is; maybe people are just giving their gut reactions to recent headlines. On a substantive level, though, there’s a difference between tapping millions of phones vs. monitoring terrorist suspects, and there’s a difference between court order and no court order. I don’t know how I would respond to the poll now, and I don’t know how I’d have responded in 2006.

In his post, John also notes that attitudes are partisanly skewed, with a combination of two factors: (a) Members of the president’s party are more supportive than members of the opposition party, and (b) averaging the surveys from both years, Republicans are generally more supportive of surveillance than Democrats are.

Given the murkiness of the issue, it seems perfectly rational for people to be more supportive of secret government power when they trust the people running the government. (This is not intended to contradict John’s post in any way, just to elaborate on it.)

{ 4 comments }

O.M. June 11, 2013 at 5:28 am

Two different kinds of courts, also.

Natalie June 11, 2013 at 10:24 am

Question wording is VERY important here. Even if people are primarily reacting to headlines, there is a big difference to many people between a situation where some court somewhere is involved, and a situation where there is no oversight at all. I think we will see the current numbers shift as we’ve learned more about what’s out there (the current survey was done very quickly after the news broke–so opinion has likely shifted some with more coverage)–but there will remain a difference due to question wording and the context of the time of the poll.

John Wihbey June 11, 2013 at 10:38 am

I think it’s significant that Pew has this other line of questioning, used most recently on the 9/11 tenth anniversary survey, that shows the public much less accepting of surveillance when it is asked about more generically. http://www.people-press.org/2011/09/01/united-in-remembrance-divided-over-policies/1/ When asking about “Government monitoring personal phone calls and emails,” Pew has gotten much lower numbers over time — in fact, it was only 29% in 2011. I wonder if using the generic “government,” the word “personal” and also bundling phone calls and emails together in the question all produce a different effect in respondents’ minds. This seems significant, given how little we know about exactly what is collected and how widely it is shared among “government” writ large. In other words, the generic question may be less loaded with assumptions and may more accurately reflect public sentiment.

Scott Monje June 11, 2013 at 1:20 pm

One difference is that the current version of the program appears to be operating within the law as prescribed for covert operations, whereas in 2006 the administration asserted that modern technology has bypassed the law so we don’t have to follow it anymore (because things evidently become less illegal as they become easier to do). A second aspect, though, is that in substantive terms it’s basically the same program being disclosed for a second time. What should the expected impact of that be? Should we expect people to be upset that “the government is still doing it”? Or will people shrug it off as old news?

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