In the land of opinions, justifiable or not, the polling of opinions has been called into question.
Let us get this straight upfront – opinions are not facts, a gathering of opinions is merely data that collates what people say they are thinking. It is like a gathering of teashop conversations, reported in pretty graphics and loud headlines. On the other hand, it is also true that in a democracy, opinions translate into votes and thus power. And data, even a collation of opinions, has been proven to be a powerful nudge that changes behaviours.
Thus, the debate.
There are four issues that are of concern here:
The first clearly is about Freedom of Expression. The collation of opinions cannot in fairness be considered damaging to life and property, though those who stand for elections may well claim so! The people have a right to be heard, and an agency that surveys people in good faith does no wrong in sharing that information. In a free democracy, which at election time is clearly a marketplace for votes, the rule of the markets must apply. Better and more information leads to better price discovery. In this case, more information, and its analysis has to lead to better representatives. In the long run.
The second issue is about the credibility of these opinion polls. While some polls may be staged, and others sponsored, there are some polls that are conducted with fairness. Well, let us say that it is possible to conduct polls fairly. As with anything that is out there for people to evaluate, any dilution in quality only reduces the credibility of these polls. In the medium term and beyond, false polls merely destroy their own future.
It has to be acknowledged that the difference between a fair poll and a false one cannot always be told at the outset. This is where strong independent poll agencies with a clear sense of their ethical lines are necessary. There are myriad ways of influencing poll results. One ably demonstrated by Sir Humphrey in a conversation with Bernard in a Yes Prime Minister episode – simply ask the right questions in the right order. Sampling itself can skew the results unless truly random and thus representative. Then of course there is the issue of ethics in gathering the results – sometimes one wonders at the sheer volumes of data collected single handedly in short periods of time – could that even be possible if one factors in the inconveniences of reaching the polled. Incentives or payments for being polled are another grey issue and not conducive to good polling. Thank goodness for compensatory errors when they happen! On the whole, a well designed poll that is administered ethically does provide valuable information.
The third issue is more fundamental – the nature of the Electorate. If the masses who receive the results of the vote will be unduly influenced by a mere poll, then are we sure that they are worthy of the privilege of the vote? The Indian electorate has proven to be rather sophisticated when it goes to the polls. Undermining their ability to process information, and to differentiate between a poll and other electoral influences might be a tad less than respectful.
The fourth is probably the most interesting – the concept of fair battle in elections. This, as they say, is honoured more often in the breach. Elections in India are a joy for observers all over the world being the largest democracy with strong undercurrents represented by multiple political parties. While opinion polls can influence voters, is it an unfair means of influence? If the polls are conducted with honesty, then it is still fair. How does one prove that they have been honest? The call is for the publication of raw data, which is not quite in the spirit of honest polling. If there is fear of raw data being published, and therefore traceable, many people will merely say what they ought to be heard saying, and not share their real opinions. Transparency in polls cannot mean this – they must of course share and prove their design and protocols to ensure credibility.
Polls are critical information to the parties and tell them what they need to do differently in the campaign. It is vital feedback to all involved in the process to identify weaknesses and areas that require more attention and probing. There are arguments on both sides of the polling debate, but banning polls is no solution in a free society.
However, all poll results need not be made public. Privately commissioned polls, or poll results at sensitive times may be restricted to users or embargoed for a short while, made available for use and not for undue influence. As always, the solution lies in intelligent design, not blanket bans.
The author is Writer, Advisor and Consultant in Education
Published as: Opinion on opinion polls
Friday, Nov 8, 2013, 11:22 IST | Agency: DNA