Pew-Related Headlines Should Read: Americans More Scared of ISIS than Real Attack

Pew released a new poll yesterday that has led to some remarkably bad reporting. The most problematic I’ve seen is the WaPo declaring the “Post-Snowden Era” that suggests the concern for civil liberties purportedly sparked by Edward Snowden’s disclosures has shifted in light of the “real fear” Americans have of ISIS.

We’re now just 15 months removed from Edward Snowden’s first bombshell revelation about the United States’ massive surveillance apparatus. But with Islamic extremists putting down roots in Syria and Iraq, Americans are very much reverting to a pre-Snowden attitude toward civil liberties.

Or perhaps we should call it “post-Snowden.”

While the Snowden revelations led to a lot of American soul-searching when it came to just how much of our civil liberties we want to yield in the name of protecting ourselves from terrorism, the soul-searching has largely come to an end, according to a new poll.


Given that very real fear, it’s perhaps not surprising to see people willing to cash in some of their civil liberties in exchange for peace of mind when it comes to their safety. But it also suggests the shift toward civil libertarianism and the criticism of the National Security Agency in the aftermath of all the Snowden revelations — of which more could certainly come and change things again— were very temporary.

Before I get into why this is so bad, first, look at what the report said. Amidst reporting that people are increasingly worried about “Islamic extremism,” Pew claims,

The survey also finds a shifting balance between concerns about civil liberties and protection from terrorism. In a reversal from last year after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, 50% today say they are more concerned that government anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country, while 35% are more concerned that the policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties.

It claims to be reporting on a “balance” between “government anti-terrorism policies” and “restricting civil liberties.” But here’s what they actually asked: “What concerns you more about the government’s anti-terrorism policies?” In addition to picking either “They have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties” or “They have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country,” people apparently answered “Both,” “neither,” “approve of policies” (9% of respondents in this poll answered one of those things; the number has varied from 8% to 13% since Pew started doing this question in July 2004), or “don’t know” or “refused” (6% in this poll, which is the all-time low, with the number ranging up to 13%). So around 10% of respondents have consistently rejected the structure of the question.

I’d say there’s a good reason for that: because there is not necessarily any reason to believe there is a balance between counterterrorism and civil liberties. Not to mention, there are plenty of other legitimate concerns about our counterterrorism policy that Pew didn’t poll. What would the polling look like, for example, if it included “Our anti-terrorism policies have involved far too many illegal wars launched against Muslim countries”?

In other words, Pew is asking people to choose, but it doesn’t actually ask respondents to “balance” these two things. Thus by reporting this as a balance, Pew is imposing its own judgment that it is a balance, a belief which its question isn’t designed to measure. Pew just assumes it is so and reports it as such.

Let me interject and say that I am not doubting the polls reflect a very real change in attitudes in recent weeks. Nor am I doubting that a lot of people do believe this is a balance. Nor do I doubt that some of the poll movement is satiation with a civil liberties focus or even a belief that we do have to double down on the dragnet.

It would be very interesting to measure those things, if someone actually asked questions designed to measure them. I am not doubting Pew’s numbers, just what we can conclude from them.

Now let’s go back to the WaPo. It claimed, in part, that polls reflected people choosing to “cash in some of their civil liberties in exchange for peace of mind.” That adopts the same unjustified “balance” interpretation that Pew did (perhaps because Pew used that language in its report). Some people likely are thinking in terms of cashing in their civil liberties, but this poll didn’t actually measure that.

The WaPo reporting is even worse with respect to its claims that Edward Snowden is the sole explanation for higher support for civil liberties last year. Not only does it have a correlation/causation problem, it doesn’t even have correlation.

Pew and WaPo compare — correctly for measurement purposes — last week’s results with the results from a poll taken in the same series July 2013 (though WaPo gets the timing of that poll wrong), just a month after Snowden’s leaks started. It is true that July was — in Pew’s poll — the high point for civil liberties support in its poll, and that an October 2013 poll showed the beginning of a decline in concern for civil liberties and a rise in concern about protecting the country. Therefore it is true that support for civil liberties since a month after the Snowden leaks first started appearing has declined.

Also Pew did a different series of polls tracking opinion about what Snowden disclosed, which is a fair measurement about changes in perception of spying since Snowden’s leaks. That measured a real decline in support for what Pew inaccurately described in questions as NSA’s counterterrorism spying that persisted at least as late as January. In that series, Pew also presumed factually false details about the dragnet. So a flawed series of polls had actually shown increasing disapproval of the dragnet the last time it was released, but we don’t know how that data has changed in the 8 months since it was polled.

But the real problem with WaPo’s proclamation of a post-Snowden era is it doesn’t cite any polling from before the Snowden stories started (Pew’s previous poll in the civil liberties or counterterrorism series was way back in 2010). To make a claim about how much Snowden influenced civil liberties support, you’d have to cite the same poll from before and from after those stories started. WaPo doesn’t do that at all; it just assumes the record high support for civil liberties was caused by Snowden.

Now I wish Pew had polling from just before the Snowden leaks, because they might show something really remarkable.

Consider this CNN poll, taken (from a much smaller sample) on April 30, 2013, just two weeks after the first successful terrorist attack targeted at civilians since the anthrax attacks. It showed a somewhat elevated level of concern that the respondent or a family member might be the victim of a terrorist attack. (It also showed an all time high in that series — 63% — believing that terrorists would always find a way to attack.)

But the most remarkable part of that poll — one which got a lot of coverage at the time — was this question:

Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 2.20.51 PM

Again, this can’t be compared with the Pew poll; the questions and polling methodology are different. Though to the extent they might be comparable, it would support an interpretation of a decline in relative support for civil liberties. It would also, however, raise real questions about whether Snowden was responsible for all or even most of Americans’ heightened support for civil liberties.

But what a poll taken two weeks after an actual terrorist attack and a month before Snowden’s stories started being reported showed that Americans were far more worried that the response to the attack would be a crackdown on civil liberties than they were about needing new anti-terror policies. Americans already showed a remarkably high degree of support for civil liberties.

Now I agree with the WaPo: a slew of polls do show Americans peeing their pants about perceived threats. As the WaPo notes, this NBC/WSJ poll shows more Americans feel less safe now than they have since 9/11 — almost a 20 point spike from this time last year, a year when terrorists actually succeeded in attacking the US.

Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 2.38.04 PM



And I’d love to know what’s behind the numbers on whether changes have been more good than bad. Are so many people peeing their pants because a general malaise has the susceptible to fear-mongering? Does that mean they like or hate the dragnet? Or just the President?

But here’s the thing.

If there is a tie between the way America is peeing its pants and support or not for civil liberties, this is not about actual threats. Here’s what President Obama said last night.

So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East — including American citizens, personnel and facilities.  If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.  While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.

This is not to say ISIS is not a threat or — more accurately, a very dangerous entity that is currently focused far away from the US. But the President, at least, doesn’t think they’re about to attack Boston.

13 years after 9/11 the American people are far more afraid after a month of fearmongering about an inflated threat than they were last year, weeks after terrorists succeeded in attacking.

But all this seems to be saying that Americans are far more afraid of the fearmongering images than of the actual threat of terrorism. If Americans have changed their relative concern about civil liberties because they are afraid, it’s not the actual threats that are causing that change.

Perhaps Pew should start a new series: Are you more afraid of terrorism, or of what your country will do by inflating the threat of terrorism?

23 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    I’m trying to figure out why people are so damned afraid of ISIS. It isn’t like they’re going to invade tomorrow, or even next year, and excuse me, WTF are the DOD, the MIC, and all of DHS for if they can’t stop even a half dozen wanna-be terrorists before they get in?

    • grfab says:

      god yes. I dont get it either. You’d think all the countries in the immediate vicinity would want to take care of this themselves. Why is it always us?

      I know that the gov obviously wants to do it so they can shovel more money to defense contractors. But every day people should really just shrug it off.

  2. masaccio says:

    Maybe Pew should do some control questions to assess the level of fear generally. I think a good bit of the fear isn’t just about ISIS but about things in general. Warmongers seize on the general fear and try to focus it away from their actual lives to the phantoms we might could bomb or arm.

  3. Don Bacon says:

    Peoples’ opinions have been carefully molded by the government-media propaganda complex, so the value of polls is highly questionable. CNN recently devoted an entire news-day, and then partial news-days, to only one event, the murder of a journalist by beheading. That event and particularly its media coverage, more than anything, has resulted in the president making a huge deal about tripling the bomb runs over Iraq, a so-called “strategy.”
    Why doesn’t Pew measure the effect of government-media propaganda on citizens, that would be more useful.
    And on this Patriot Day, a choice remark from Edward Abbey:
    “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      “And on this Patriot Day, a choice remark from Edward Abbey:
      ‘A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.'”
      Since Mitchell Palmer was Attorney General, quotes like that would generate a personal memo from J. Edgard, regardless of how necessary the sentiment. Nuance has long since left the building.

      • P J Evans says:

        Patriot Day is, as everyone in Massachusetts knows, April 18. Today is Thursday September 11. Not Patriot Day, but ‘Let’s Start A War We Can’t Win’ Day.

  4. Alan Kurtz says:

    “I am not doubting Pew’s numbers,” writes emptywheel, “just what we can conclude from them.” She does, however, accuse Pew of “imposing its own judgment” in balancing counterterrorism and civil liberties, and of presuming “factually false details about the dragnet,” resulting in “a flawed series of polls.”

    I wonder, does emptywheel attribute Pew’s false presumptions to bias or to ineptitude? Pew Research Center bills itself as a nonpartisan source of public opinion polling. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent, nonprofit, non-governmental organization founded in 1948. With $5.6 billion in assets, Pew is among the 20 wealthiest charitable foundations worldwide.

    Are we to disbelieve this altruistic pose in favor of some conspiracy theory in which Pew is out to screw progressivism in America? Or are we to conclude merely that an endowment of $5.6 billion is insufficient nowadays to fund competent social science research?

    • emptywheel says:

      Just sloppiness, I think. So many people assume there’s a binary between freedom and security. So many people forget there are entirely different ways to approach terrorism.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        At least a two hundred year-old refrain, attributed to a rotund Philadelphian, suggests that those willing to trade liberty for safety will get, and deserve, neither. In that vein, a war reporter from St. Louis famously pointed out another fallacy: The end never justifies the means.

    • orionATL says:

      the issue is not pew; but thanks for the pew p.r. ; your’re very knowledgeable for not being an employee.

      the issue is a specific public survey asking one particular important set of questions. pews wealth and all the other info you so kindly provided are irrelevant to whether the question was well put or well analyzed.

      you do accept that your favorite organization can make important errors, don’t you?

      • Alan Kurtz says:

        The issue is not a specific survey asking one particular set of questions. In her blog, emptywheel flays Pew for “a flawed series of polls.” She now tells us Pew is guilty only of “sloppiness”—not institutional bias. I appreciate her reply and am grateful for the clarity, although I suspect Pew’s professional statisticians would dispute her assessment.

        • orionATL says:

          only people who think their ox has been gored complain like you are complaining; you might as well acknowledge your association with pew.

          the use of the word “flayed” is pure exaggeration.

          you do understand, don’t you, that information on public matters, even info published by your beloved pew, can be criticized at will?

        • emptywheel says:

          The other errors, as explained in the posts linked that you can link through to yourself, are factual. Factual assertions about the dragnet that were not correct. A claim the dragnet does not collect content about Americans, and a claim that they are exclusively focused on CT. Both factually false. They were basing their polling off propaganda about the dragnet, not off the actual public reporting on it. That’s not statistical at all, as the issues I raise here are not.

  5. orionATL says:

    just more spectacular television coverage which exploits our adrenaline response to boost viewing.

    any individual can launch a terrorist attack at anytime; just like a bankrobbery or a mugging. i they’d like they can wear a isis uniform.

    i suspect isis is a paper tiger; they are not a threat tothey have no stronghold of support; their brutality works against them; their supply lines (if from syria) are long; they’re entangled in the syrian war; they are fight in desert terrain, the best for air warfare.

    to get an answer close to reality on a civil liberties vs terrorism question you need for a respondent to have both issues in focus at one time.

  6. Don Bacon says:

    Norman Solomon’s book is instructive in the government’s use of propaganda.
    Dan Rather, an iconic US journalist: “Look I’m an American. I never tried to kid anybody that I’m some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of ‘win’ might be. Now, I can’t and don’t argue that that is coverage without prejudice. About that I am prejudiced.” So Dan brought us through the criminal war against Vietnam and the Nixon presidency. — from Norman Solomon’s “War Made Easy” — How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.
    “Why, of course the people don’t want war . . . But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship . . . Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country..” —Hermann Goering, 1946
    So I question the meaningfulness of polls, particularly on matters that don’t really affect the lives of the people being polled, like events in far-off Iraq. Nobody likes to have his head chopped off, but there are more important things to worry about, like the government, heart disease, dangerous roads, putting food on the table and paying the rent or mortgage.

  7. Don Bacon says:

    “Pew Research has partnered with major news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA TODAY, National Journal, Smithsonian Magazine and The Economist” (according to its website) — all government-affiliated propaganda arms that have promoted illegal warfare.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice corrective to a dubious poll. We’re not in a Post-Snowden Era; the name suggests an Obama-inspired bit of WaPoo propaganda, an attempt to put one more Obama era problem behind us. Sadly, he will leave us with more than his multi-challenged predecessor.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Of course we’re worried about “Islamic extremism”, as defined by a tad too eager, too cooperative Washington press corps. We should be as worried about an elite eager to use creatively enhanced descriptions of threats to arrogate to themselves more wealth and power.

  10. Don Bacon says:

    People from Massachusetts are weird nonconformists. (I know, being from West Boylston, Worcester County.)
    Anyhow, it’s Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts and Wisconsin and Patriot’s Day in Maine, in April.
    Today is Patriot Day, and a lot of people have died and otherwise suffered because of it.
    Let’s take a poll on that.

    • P J Evans says:

      A lot more people died, all over the world, because Cheney wanted a little war, for whatever reason. Nearly all of those who died on 9/11, died without knowing anything about why they were dying, and a hell of a lot of them weren’t US citizens, although there are a lot of people who don’t want to remember that, or that many were Muslims.

      You can tell me it’s ‘patriot day’, but I refuse to recognize it as such: it’s a day to mourn the loss of our country to fear and warmongering.

      • Don Bacon says:

        It wasn’t Cheney, it was the US administration totally supported by the Repubs and the Dems including Gore, H. Clinton and Biden, following through on W. Clinton’s Iraq Liberation Act.
        It’s Patriot Day, recognize it or not. Haloween is next.

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