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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Polls and Fact Checks, two clever tools used by the media

Hello, and welcome back. My last piece was about the power of the media. Initially I thought that'd be the only piece I did about the media, but now I realize that there needs to be more.  The effectiveness of the media is pretty slick and hard to spot if you're not paying attention.  I'm hoping with this article, some light might be shed on a couple tools used.  By doing so, I hope it will enable to pay more attention to the meta information game that's going on all the time.

These two tools, polls and fact checks, are what I call narrative foundations.  The foundations serve as the "objective facts" on which narratives are built.  When a political pundit forms an opinion about something, chances are they're drawing that conclusion from a poll or from a fact checker's "objective" fact checking.  By using these supposedly unassailable facts as their foundation, they can then claim that their biased opinion on the matter is based on fact, therefore vicariously giving them the credibility that objective provides.  How these two tools provide a foundation is different, so I'll cover both.

Let's start with polls, because they're viewed to be the most objective.  The numbers don't lie, right?  Well, let me tell you, my own profession gives me a healthy insight into the whole "numbers don't lie" bit.  You see, I've been doing data analysis and reporting for about a decade now.  Part of what I do is working with sales personnel to present the data they request to the customer.  And one thing I learned is while the numbers themselves don't lie, the formula, calculation and context of the numbers aren't always a complete, objective picture.  I've seen figures that weren't very flattering to our company's performance sliced and dissected in a way to either not make it look so bad or even look positive.  So how do polls pull this off?  I mean, it's just asking a bunch of people if they would vote for this person or that person or whether they agreed with this social agenda or not, right?  Yes, but again, you have to look at the "formula" behind the poll:  the sampling.  Pollsters can rig polls in their favor by having their sampling lopsided in favor of one position or another.  As a small extreme example, if I were to ask 8 Democrats and 2 Republicans who they were going to vote for in the upcoming election, I'd probably get 8 for Obama and 2 for Romney.  Thus this poll's results would be something like Obama 80%, Romney 20%.    Of course, that's an extreme example because a.) it's only 10 people and b.) the sampling is lopsided toward Democrats.

I use this example though, to lead into the presidential polling going on today, since it's the most relevant and one of the reasons I'm talking about polls.  You see, while the above example is extreme, the same type of sampling tampering is going on in many of the left leaning media polls.  Naturally, they're not going to overly flood the sample with democrats since the poll wouldn't be believable and it'd kill their credibility.   Yet, their sampling almost always pushes the democrat sampling to the highest possible believable levels.  If you've ever heard of someone mention a poll is D+11, D+5,etc.  that means that the sampling size of the poll contains that % more democrats than republicans.  This is where the dishonesty comes into play.  You see, the sampling is supposed to contain a mixture of republicans, independents, and democrats that most accurately represents the expected turnout for this election.   Yet, in most of the polls done by left leaning organizations, they assume they'll get the record turnout from last election (or even MORE than that!) and assume that republicans will have the same abysmal turnout as in 2008.  And anyone that thinks that the turnout last election is going to be the same makeup as this one is smoking crack.

So what does it matter? If polls are dishonest, then they're dishonest and that won't represent what actually happens on election day, right?  That's correct.  But there's an insidious purpose to polls of this nature:  to demoralize the opponent's base in two ways.  First, if your candidate is down by 6 or 7 points in the polls, you might just decided your vote won't matter and stay home.  Second, as it pertains to the media, it lets the pundits peddle their influence that this one candidate is a "sure win" or that the other side is "floundering" piling on the demoralizing nature.  So if your candidate doesn't look like he's going to win and all the "experts" say he's not going to win (or as Pelosi said, "we all know Romney isn't going to win"), then what's the point in voting right?  And that's exactly the goal.  It's an indirect form of voter suppression.

And now onto fact checkers.  Much like polls, fact checkers take on the role of an object source of information.  They "fact check" claims made by politicians, indicating whether their claim was true or not.  It's a pretty brilliant tactic, too.  By claiming to be objective in "fact checking", then other pundits can draw from the fact checker's reporting to lend credence that their opinions are "based on facts".  However, like the pollsters behind the polls, the fact checkers will usually  have an agenda on hand.  They are possibly held to a slightly higher objective standard, because if you call yourself a fact checker, you better be bringing facts, thus the amount of "bias wiggle room" might be smaller or in some instances they must inescapably report facts that goes against to their own agenda.  Yet still, the fact checkers still serve as a useful narrative foundation.  A fact checker is capable of muddying something a politician said by countering it with their opinion on the facts instead of just outright saying whether the politician lied or not.   For example, when a fact checker countered Paul Ryan's claim that Obama gutted $700 billion from medicare funding, his counter was that by injecting it into Obamacare that the loss is negated.  The problem here is Paul Ryan didn't lie.  The fact is Obama did take that much out of medicare to help fund Obamacare.  By countering Paul Ryan's assertion in this fashion, the fact checker stops being a fact checker and just another pundit.  Yet, because he is a fact checker, other pundits can simply say "hey look, Ryan lied, the fact checker said so!" and then that narrative is pushed out everywhere.

Basically put, the goal of fact checkers aren't necessarily to check facts.  It's to appear like an objective source of information since the "normal" media has lost tons of credibility due to their thinly veiled biased reporting.   So by the media using the fact checker as a foundation, they themselves are drawing upon that supposed objective credibility.  And like I said, occasionally the fact checkers may have to put out something that isn't favorable to their preferred slant, but the brilliance with this is the media is not required to pick those up.  They can pick and choose which narrative foundations to build upon.  And by choosing the narrative, as stated in the previous article, they have the power to shape the public's opinions and beliefs.

Overall, it's a very clever two tiered scheme in order to retain credibility among the people.   Here's how it works:  the fact checkers will check some facts on something, usually providing a favorable slant toward their own ideology.  These fact checking stories never really reach the mainstream.  You have to actually look for them.  The more visible mainstream media types will use this fact checker's article as a basis for their own piece.  What the people will see is the main pundit casually refer to the fact checking piece and go "ah ok, they had it fact checked so this must be accurate", therefore giving the main pundit credibility while at the same time insulating the fact checking piece from widespread scrutiny.

Both of these tools, as you see, are very clever.  They appear to rely on objective data that will justify a pundit's own talking points.  But little do most people know is that those "objective facts" aren't really that objective and tend to be rigged toward a certain slant.  And again, like before, the purpose of this article is not really to explain how to get your own accurate information, it's to make you aware of these tools in play so that hopefully you'll recognize them and therefore form an opinion that's more aware and informed than if you were just to take these media pieces at face value.