How to spot fake polls

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 Photo credit: Canada Free Press

Fact based reporting in the media and opinionbased information has become increasingly more difficult to fact check. “Fake news” is commonplace and is particularly deceptive when associated with polling data. So how can we learn to spot fake polls?  

The Associated Press NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts estimate that 47 percent of Americans believe it is difficult to know if the information they read is true. Only 31 percent claim it is easy to tell the difference. According to the New York Times, over 60 percent of Americans reported that they regularly see conflicting reports about the same set of facts from varying sources.

As social media platforms have figured more prominently as the primary channels for social and political conversations, too so has voter manipulation increased through misinformation via proliferation of fake news and fake polling information. Political campaigns in multiple countries have seen widespread fake polling data and misleading information. Though the social media companies did not produce the content themselves, they are still grappling with how (and if) they should intervene. As a result, fake polls can be expected to remain a factor in the foreseeable future.

So, if we can’t rely on social media companies to vet false information, how can we learn to distinguish “real news” from “fake news”? In early 2019, the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR) spotted a publication that was producing fake polling data in the lead up to the Slovakian presidential elections. It was later discovered that the company behind the publication did not have a physical office or even a website, but was able to publish fake polling results through social media. Based on this, ESOMAR has produced three recommendations around what to look for:

  1. Consider the source of the publication:
  • Who published the report and is it published on an official website?
  • Have you ever heard of them before?
  • Does the source have political bias?
  1. Read the story:
  • Is it coherent?
  • Is the timeframe of the poll clearly outlined and does it seem reasonable?
  • Is there transparency around the polling methodology and how participants were selected for the poll?
  1. Compare to other polls:
  • Consider how this poll compares to others similar to it?
  • Were the questions clear and reasonable?
  • Are there any figures that stand out as “odd” compared to other similar polls?

In the era of fake news, we find ourselves on a new learning curve. Facts and true information can no longer be taken for granted, but one could argue it has become an even more precious commodity. Rapid Asia holds membership with ESOMAR and follows their ethical guidelines. Furthermore, we prefer to work with subcontractors who are members of ESOMAR. In doing so, our clients and partners across the globe can be assured of the reliability and quality of our work. We strongly encourage our staff, clients, and partners to think critically about research findings and how they should be interpreted so as to not mislead or distort the reality we are trying to understand. We hope the guidelines presented here help to move our readers in that direction.

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About the authors:  Daniel Lindgren is the Founder of Rapid Asia Co., Ltd., a management consultancy firm based in Bangkok that specializes in evaluations for programs, projects, social marketing campaigns and other social development initiatives. Tanya Motwani is an independent consultant with a passion for social development work. Learn more about our work on: www.rapidasia.com