All Error, No Margin  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   December/January 2005

All Error, No Margin   

Every vote counts on the Web, but news organizations should temper their enthusiasm for these pseudo polls.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


For political campaigns, every vote counts--including those that aren't supposed to count for anything.

The fight for the fake vote began in 2000, when the Republican National Committee conjured an online landslide by asking supporters to flood Web polls after the Bush-Gore debates. While scientific polls showed a dead heat, George W. Bush led 60–40 on major news sites the day after one of the debates.

Warning that "Republicans stole the post-debate spin" in 2000, the Democratic National Committee spammed millions of supporters before each of the debates this year with instructions to rush the online polls and vote for Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards. In a September 30 e-mail, widely posted on blogs, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said it was "crucial" that supporters check national and local TV and newspaper Web sites for online polls "in the minutes immediately following the debate."

The day after the first debate, scientific polls gave Kerry a clear lead--but in most Web polls the gap was larger. Of the 2.4 million (yes, that's million) votes cast on MSNBC.com's poll within 24 hours of the debate, Kerry was favored 61 percent to Bush's 29 percent. CBSNews.com's poll showed Kerry leading Bush 88 percent to 10 percent.

This time Republicans were caught off-guard, but they recovered in time to send their own communiqué before the vice presidential debate. "The major news networks will all have internet polls after the debate. Make sure you vote in polls on: MSNBC.com, FoxNews.com, ABCNews.com, CNN.com and even CBS," Bush Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman wrote in an e-mail quoted widely online. People's "perceptions are shaped as much by their conversations around the water cooler as by the debates themselves."

Thus the online polls were buffeted by the winds of spin. And many news sites were happily complicit, some even reporting on the virtual ballot-stuffing campaign while continuing to host the surveys on their pages.

How can a news organization support such a farce? Some probably don't think about it. Others acknowledge the inaccuracies of online polls but aren't dissuaded from using them. They assume that today's Web visitors understand online surveys are more of a game than a true reflection of public opinion; nearly all Web polls are labeled "unscientific" and "for entertainment only." Accuracy is not the point.

What is the point? For one thing, Web polls are fun and easy, and the results give the talking heads something to talk about.

Some say Web polls are also a unique barometer of the energy in a campaign--or at least its ability to summon a focused burst of activity. Speaking on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" the day after the first debate, MSNBC analyst and former Howard Dean Campaign Manager Joe Trippi called MSNBC's poll "a measurement of the energy that got unleashed by John Kerry in the debate." In other words, scientific polls gauge opinion while Web polls gauge excitement.

That's a very interesting idea, but it doesn't explain why a news organization should offer a bull's-eye to the spin doctors on its homepage. Then again, many of these same news organizations also trolled "Spin Alley" for so-called analysis after the debates. It's all part of the melding of journalism and propaganda in which audiences are expected to divine the difference.

If news sites can't resist running Web polls on politically important subjects, maybe they'll consider a few guidelines that could make them less obvious targets. First, be more creative and not so predictable. Instead of "Who won?" or "Who has your vote?" ask questions about the debate, the campaign or the issues that encourage people to think before responding. Second, don't let polls on controversial subjects linger. The longer the poll is available, the more likely someone will find it and hack it. And, if nothing else, keep political Web polls separate from news coverage. Never use them in lieu of scientific survey results or present them in a way that suggests they have real meaning.

Labeling an online poll "entertainment" doesn't eliminate its potential to influence perception and public opinion. Campaigns take them seriously for a reason: They believe there's psychological impact, however slight, in seeing a candidate crush his or her opponent in an online survey--especially if those results make it into news coverage and water cooler conversation.

To recap: We know online surveys are unscientific and subject to all sorts of manipulation. We know that campaigns and interest groups are savvy enough to hijack them. Yet we wink at the mischief and continue to publish them. Why? "Because people like them" is not a good enough answer. When serious issues and real decisions hang in the balance, Web polls are more than just a game.

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