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    What America Thinks
    The Jokers Stacking the Deck

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Aug. 17, 1998

    Here's a question not even a pollster would ask: What do Adolf Hitler, the Friends of the Earth, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jesus Christ, the Larimer County, Colo., 4-Wheel Drive Club and Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf have in common?

    The answer easily can be found by searching the world's newest and most cluttered attic: the World Wide Web. That's where each of these individuals or groups has recently played a starring role in online public opinion polls that went completely and hilariously wrong.

    Of course, pollsters have hectored the masses for decades about the dangers of pseudo-polls that invite people to clip out, phone in or answer online via a computer a "survey" questionnaire.

    Now we have the Internet, and the ability to do such pseudo-polls instantaneously and then offer the skewed, nonrepresentative results to a worldwide audience. It's a temptation that more Web sites are finding difficult to resist: Online polls are everywhere on the Net. So are the disasters that inevitably follow. Consider these recent examples:

  • Few people are greener than the Friends of the Earth. But now their faces should be a wee bit red following an ill-advised e-mail survey on sport-utility vehicles that backfired loudly.

    Visitors to the Friends Web site were asked to fill out a survey after reading "The Road Hog Info Trough," which scored sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) as gas-guzzling, pollution-producing flower-flatteners.

    The online survey questions were clearly designed to illicit a disapproving view of SUVs. Then the four-wheel crowd discovered the survey, reported Washington Post columnist Al Kamen.

    "Check this out!" gleefully admonished the Larimer County 4-Wheel Drive Club on its Web page, pointing four-wheelers to the Friends of the Earth survey. "Go there and fill out their survey and let them know we like our SUVs and would like to keep them and that gas mileage isn't the "'be all to end all!'"

    And so they did, generating results that are decidedly unfriendly to the Friends of the Earth. When asked whether light trucks and SUVs should "be allowed to pollute up to 75 percent more than cars," 61 percent said yes. And when asked what should be done about existing taxes on manufacturers that produce "gas-guzzling vehicles," a majority said such taxes should be repealed, not increased.

    Two-thirds of the survey respondents reported they had a "very positive" impression of those gas-guzzling SUVs. (That's not surprising because half the survey participants said they owned one.) Eighty-five percent said sport-utility vehicles do not pose a threat to other highway drivers, and three in four said "nothing" should be done about the presumed problem of road-hogging SUV drivers.

  • An even larger group of online subversives recently and very publicly embarrassed People magazine. The mag asked its Web site visitors to vote in an online poll for the Most Beautiful Person of 1998. The ballot included the usual suspects: Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, Madonna and dozens of others. They also allowed surfers to send in write-in nominations.

    Of course, the temptation proved too great for radio bad boy Howard Stern, who advised his listeners to e-mail votes for Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf, a Stern camp follower and sometimes on-air personality.

    Others joined with Stern in piling on the People poll. An online prankster with the cyberhandle Gautam gave detailed instructions on how to "vote Hank," cautioning people to "vote just once, lest those tricky magazine editors claim you're ballot stuffing. And e-mail the message to everyone you know!" (The wackiness turned surreal when fans of professional wrestler Ric "Nature Boy" Flair bombarded the People Web site with e-mails in support of their guy.)

    Of course Hank swamped the competition, finishing with 230,169 votes, or about 16 times the number who supported DiCaprio, the pretty face whom People declared the fairest of the fair and put on its cover. Nature Boy Flair finished second with more than 17,000 votes – 3,000 ahead of the Titanic hunk. (At various points in the balloting, Hank actually occupied several top spots, largely because lots of people just wrote in "Hank," while others sent in his full nom de Stern, some with comma, some without.)

    The people at the People Web site were mortified; they even briefly closed down the site. Then they decided to capitalize on all the free publicity, reopened the poll and publicly embraced Hank and Ric.

    Hank was duly crowned as the site's winner of the "Beautiful People Poll," and pictured wearing a pink bunny suit. Flair was declared runner-up. (He didn't rate a mention in the print magazine article.) "It kind of made us nostalgic for the days when all we had to contend with was sparring between the Xena fans and the Hercules supporters," People Web site editors wrote in a brief introductory note.

  • All of this controversy apparently has slipped under the radar at Time magazine. The newsweekly is sponsoring the Time 100 Poll to name the Person of the Century.

    So far, Jesus Christ is number one, and JESUS CHRIST currently is 20th (Time's tallying software obviously is case-sensitive). Adolf Hitler trails Jesus, followed by Eric Cartman (a character on the "South Park" cartoon show who finished 14th in People's Beautiful People Poll). The ubiquitous Ric Flair is fourth.

    Of course survey researchers know that these kinds of bogus polls can be wrong without a bit of help from mischief-makers. Because people chose to participate in these surveys, the sample is by definition self-selected. That means the sample may not – in fact, usually does not – accurately represent the opinions of the country as a whole or some meaningful segment of it, just those folks who bothered to fill it out. In the case of online polls, the fact that computers and Internet access aren't available or used uniformly by everyone &3150; poor people, minorities, women and the elderly, for example – automatically renders such surveys of dubious reliability.

    But online polls are particularly vulnerable to pranksters seeking to skew the results to make a statement or get a laugh. Thus pollsters or Webmasters who might be tempted to conduct an online poll might consider the words of Auntie Dynamite, an online columnist who wrote about the Beautiful People Poll: "If People had any understanding of the real nature of the 'net, they never would have put any power into our hands."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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