Moscow war diary. Part 4: Incriminating Evidence? Or polling fallacies

March 7-8, 2022.

Fourth Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate

Can the results of public opinion polls be incriminating evidence against Russia? Such a question arises when various well-known polling companies publish the results of their latest polls dedicated to supporting the so-called “special operation in Ukraine.” Following the well-known Russian intellectuals (Grigory Yudin), I would raise the problem of the status of public opinion poll data in non-free and non-democratic societies. I think that in addition to the system bias, which is caused by the specifics of the mode, there are some other aspects.

According to polls. FOM, VTsIOM and Levada find mass support for the war (special operation). But there are several buts. First, in the wording, instead of the clear and real word “war” (moreover, on a large scale), the official euphemism “military operation” and so on is used. This greatly reduces the drama: “war” is an important and emotionally laden word for any resident of Russia, some other term greatly reduces the attention of respondents to questions. Secondly, it is important how the structure of the questionnaires looked like – what topics and plots were asked before this block of questions about the “military operation”. The previous context of the blocks also affects the responses. Thirdly, G. Yudin is right – of course, there is an effect of socially approved answers, but no one knows how strong it is and how it is represented in different social and age groups. But similar effects can be observed to a lesser extent in Western countries – only in authoritarian regimes they are afraid of political persecution for “wrong” answers, and in democratic ones they are afraid of public censure and moral condemnation. This must also be taken into account. Fourth, the media (in any country) have a major impact on public opinion. And here, not only censorship or propaganda also begins to influence (let’s not be naive, it exists in countries with any regime, but in totalitarian ones it plays an outsized role), but the effect of self-developing mass information waves (mass “infection”) exists everywhere – in Russia with militaristic hysteria and in a world with a total rejection of Russia as part of the world. The echo of social networks and interactive communication – “moral wars” only intensifies this infection and information waves. Of course, the surrounding news agenda is now extremely pressing on public opinion and poll results.

[editor: Yudin updates his criticism of polling in Russia here. Others have more fundamental accusations of outright fraud and shady practices, but that’s for a later post]

And further. Leading Russian survey companies conduct their surveys according to international methods and the data is not drawn arbitrarily. All samples are accurate and measurements are made according to the methods. But technical sophistication does not mean that surveys show the complex processes that take place in societies at critical moments. [editor: other qualified persons disagree with this assessment and make a distinction between political polling and commercial commissioned surveys – again for a later post]

And most importantly, in a situation of social storm and obvious force majeure, public opinion polls in authoritarian or democratic countries give big failures. They measure something in an instantaneous jump in sentiment or in a situation of a giant information wave and a massive “infection” of public opinion with one idea. But what happens in different social groups and in everyday life – polls do not measure this – they falter like a compass at the moment it is affected by a magnetic anomaly. “Military field” operational anthropology works here – communication with people, all-round, correspondence, included observation. Here and now. At this moment. At the same time, it is important to focus not on the mood of your intellectual friends from the Facebook or Instagram feed, but to try to see the broader social picture in its complexity and ambiguity. Now in Russia it is difficult, the more valuable are the rare anthropologists and ethnographers who know the Russian language, who have been in Russia not only in the circle of prestigious universities, but there – in the very depths where poor people live …

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