Yesterday, the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center released a joint poll that purportedly showed that “a large majority of Americans” believe the federal government should focus on “investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised.”
But a careful look at the poll shows citizens are far less sanguine about surrendering their privacy rights, as the facts continue to be revealed.
Pollsters faced a difficult challenge—to accurately capture public opinion during a complex and evolving story. Recall, on Wednesday of last week, the story was about the NSA tracking Verizon phone records. So the pollsters drew up a perfectly reasonable and balanced question:
As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?
Fifty‐six percent found this “acceptable.” Thus, the “majority of Americans” lead in the Washington Post.
However, on Thursday, the Washington Post revealed explosive details about the massive data‐collection program PRISM—and the public was alerted that the NSA was not just collecting phone records, but email, Facebook, and other online records. So the pollsters quickly drew up a new question, asked starting Friday, from June 7–9:
Do you think the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?
Fifty‐two percent—a majority—said “no.” So Americans feel differently about the story based on the facts on Wednesday, when the story was about tracking “telephone calls,” and facts on Thursday, when the story was about monitoring all “email and other online activity.”
The Washington Post could have fairly gone with a story that a majority of Americans do not agree that the federal government should monitor everyone’s email and online communication, even if it might prevent future terrorist attacks.
Unfortunately, that’s not the story that the Washington Post went with. Subsequent media coverage of the Post-Pew poll has neglected this nuance and cemented this misinterpretation of what “majority of Americans” believe.
A more reasonable interpretation of the Post-Pew poll is that citizens’ views seem to be changing as more details are revealed about the massive extent of the NSA snooping program. Indeed, most citizens have not been following this story as closely with only 48 percent report following thing “very closely” or “fairly closely.”
I’ll be watching eagerly to see what the next polls find out about that ever elusive “majority of Americans.”