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Burying the Lede: No Matter How Pew Asks, Majorities Oppose Massive Government Surveillance

“Government Surveillance: A Question Wording Experiment,” reads the latest release of polling data from the Pew Research Center. The story underneath reads:

To better understand how the manner in which the government’s surveillance program is described affects public evaluations, the Pew Research Center conducted a question wording experiment in a national telephone survey fielded between July 11 and 21, 2013 among 2,002 adults. The survey respondents were asked whether they would favor or oppose a government data collection program, but the wording of four elements of the program were described differently to different groups of respondents. These are: whether metadata or content is being collected; whether phone calls or emails are being monitored; whether the program has court approval; and whether the program is part of anti-terrorism efforts.

Mentioning the role of courts and describing the program as part of anti-terrorism efforts each had a substantial effect on public sentiment. Among the roughly 1,000 respondents who heard the government surveillance program described as occurring “with court approval,” support was 12 points higher than among the other 1,000 who heard no mention of courts. This is consistent with the findings of a separate Pew Research Center survey, which found that people’s impressions of whether or not there is adequate court oversight of the program are more strongly linked to overall support an opposition than are other perceptions.

Mentioning the goal of terrorism also affects the level of public support. When the surveillance was described as “part of anti-terrorism efforts” it garnered 9% more support than when this goal was not mentioned.

Describing the government as collecting metadata, such as the date, time, phone numbers and email addresses, drew more approval than when the program was described as collecting the actual recordings of phone calls or the text of emails….

… and on the story goes. But let’s cut to the chase. Here are the poll results:

Pew Poll Results on Surveillance: no matter how the question is asked, a majority of Americans oppose the government's program of massive and intrusive surveillance.

Look at the pattern of those results. While it’s true that variation occurs according to how Pew asks its questions, that’s burying the lede. There’s one big, fat lesson learned from this survey. The headline should read:

Majority of Americans oppose Government’s Massive and Intrusive Surveillance, No Matter How Poll Question is Asked.

President Barack Obama likes to say (after he tried to keep this program a secret) that he “welcomes this debate” about whether our civil liberties should be sacrificed to the war on a few isolated terrorists. The public has weighed into the debate, and the answer is HELL, NO. If Barack Obama were serious about respecting the public’s view on the government’s massive, intrusive surveillance program, he’d see this result and end the program. Do you think for a moment he plans to do that?

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