Scrupuli

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How A Representative Can Use Surveys To Good Advantage [link]

by Scrvpvlvs
Mar 19, 2010 5:43 PM–A friend forwarded an e-mail from U.S. House Rep. Dr. Michael Burgess (R-Texas). Dr. Burgess represents a district my friend left some time ago. But Rep. Burgess is still seemingly interested in his opinion of a health care reform bill up for vote this weekend, and sought to have him complete a short survey.

This e-mail survey is a delightfully clever bit of misdirection and propaganda. Let’s see how it works.

Misdirection: inviting you to tell more about yourself than you realize

The e-mail baits you into action. It calls the bill a product of corrupt acts: “secret negotiations, sweetheart deals for certain Members, and rule-bending procedural gimmicks”. This will delight or antagonize you, depending on whether you agree or disagree with the Republican Party position on this bill.

Having gotten your attention (the bait), the e-mail then immediately invites you to click a link (take the bait) to complete a survey. You are primed by your enthusiasm (or indignation) to do so.

The link you click is the hook. It doesn’t go straight to the survey.

Here are some of the links which take you to Rep. Burgess’ survey. Notice each one has a different ID:

http://burgess.house.gov/Components/Redirect/r.aspx?ID=50286-00000001
http://burgess.house.gov/Components/Redirect/r.aspx?ID=50286-00000002
http://burgess.house.gov/Components/Redirect/r.aspx?ID=50286-12345678
http://burgess.house.gov/Components/Redirect/r.aspx?ID=50286-99999999
[...]

When you see a system like this, it generally means each copy of the e-mail has a different ID. That lets your e-mail address be linked to your survey results.

The survey comes up on your screen, with two questions: (1) Email Address for future email updates (more spam), and (2) are you opposed to the bill (Yes/No/Unsure).

Still enthusiastic, you answer.

Remember: even if you do not give an e-mail address on the survey, your original e-mail address can be linked to your survey response. So Rep. Burgess can know how you voted.

You now enthusiastically forward the original e-mail to your like minded friends. Some of them vote. Some of them give Rep. Burgess their e-mail address on the survey. Now, Rep. Burgess can know not only how you voted, but who your friends are, and how they voted.

But that’s only half of the fun.

Propaganda: using the results for greater influence

For more delight, let’s look at the first question of the survey itself: the Email Address for future email updates. The first question of a survey is the one that is most likely to be answered. So a survey will put the most important question first. Why is this question the most important to Rep. Burgess?

It’s important because it influences you. If you oppose Rep. Burgess, or if you support the bill that he opposes, then you won’t want his e-mail updates. So the first question of the survey deflates a lot of your enthusiasm for completing the survey. In other words, people who agree with Rep. Burgess are more likely to complete the survey.

This is an example of what is called self selection bias. Rep. Burgess’ survey responses will lean towards people who agree with his position. Therefore, so will his survey results.

One way Rep. Burgess can capitalize on this situation is to influence other House members. He could claim he surveyed my mailing list and found that the results were strongly against the bill, more strongly than you would expect if only Republicans opposed it.

Another way is to influence voters at reelection time. He could claim voters can trust him to listen to his constituents, pointing out that he voted against the health bill after surveying his mailing list and finding mostly opposition.

Rep. Burgess should be careful not to point out that his mailing list is not limited to constituents, and that his e-mail could and probably was forwarded to many people not on his list and living outside his district. The e-mail specifically says, “health care reform will affect every single American, so I want to hear from you”—inviting responses from people outside his district.

I do not in any way mean to single Rep. Burgess out for criticism. The e-mail and survey system he uses is the regular House Of Representatives system. It is designed to be used the way he did. Therefore I have no reason to doubt that his survey is a fair example of what all our Representatives from all political parties are doing as a matter of routine.

Delightful, isn’t it?

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