With the American presidential race in full swing, public opinion polls are once again garnering a huge amount of attention, notwithstanding the fact that they may be fundamentally flawed and actively injurious to our democracy. In fact, the state of polling has deteriorated so much that the polling titan Gallup recently announced that it will not conduct any “horse-race” polls for the 2016 election. Needless to say, that has not stopped others from doing so, and the results, however inaccurate and fundamentally useless, are breathlessly touted by the vapid personalities who have replaced actual working journalists.
Our fascination with the polls is driven by two complementary human impulses: we love ranking things (bigger, taller, faster, richer, etc.) and we are eager, even impatient to learn the outcome of contests. Public opinion polls purport to satisfy both desires. RealClearPolitics, for instance, compiles an ongoing average of national polls to provide a meta-ranking of the major presidential candidates (today, for instance, the Republican list starts with Donald Trump at the top with 35 percent and the recently-departed Lindsey Graham at .5 percent). RPC also has a page listing various projections of the outcome of possible head-to-head matchups in the upcoming November election, from the likely (Clinton v. Trump) to the laughably improbable (Fiorina v. [well, anyone, really]).
Our fascination with ranking things can be seen in social media’s enthusiastic embrace on polling apps. Some online services and platforms offer built-in polling tools (such as Twitter and Daily Kos, to name just two), while others (Facebook) permit third-party polling apps. Still others (Instagram, for instance) are not conducive to polls and seemingly have no interest. And of course, there are a huge number of Web sites that allow users to set up and embed polls on Web sites or in WordPress posts (more on that in a bit).
Polling is gaining popularity as a customer engagement tool, both on Web sites and in more real-time applications, such as audience surveys during a lecture or classroom presentation (check out Poll Everywhere or DirectPoll, which make use of text messaging to solicit feedback). Although I haven’t done much with polls myself, I can see the potential for surprising results: When I asked DailyKos readers if a teacher who was discovered to be moonlighting as an adult webcam model should keep her job, the results ran 3-1 in her favor. Of course, those results don’t tell us anything useful; the poll simply documents the fact that three-quarters of the people who took the time to vote chose to answer “yes.”
When I was researching Cybertraps for the Young, I first learned that kids were using tools like SurveyMonkey to cyberbully their peers with offensive and hurtful polls. That behavior, unfortunately, has carried over to virtually every new social media polling tool (see, e.g. my recent post regarding the “AfterSchool” app).
This particular post was inspired by year-end reports out of Newfoundland and Labrador of poll-driven cyberbullying. In the town of Port aux Basques, in western Newfoundland, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating an anonymous poll posted to Facebook asking readers to vote on the “ugliest girls” in the 9th grade at St. James Elementary school. The list included the names of a half-dozen young women.
The incident follows on the heels of a similar episode of cyberbullying that occurred in November at Holy Trinity High in Torbay, a town on the eastern side of the Avalon peninsula. Someone used the Web site StrawPoll.me to create a poll entitled “Ugliest girls at hth” and posted the link to Ask.fm. (To help illustrate this story, I’ve created my own StrawPoll and embedded it below.)
One of the young women included on the poll circulated at Holy Trinity offered a powerful example of one way to respond to this type of cyberbullying. After learning about the poll, Grade 12 student Lynne Cantwell took to Facebook and wrote the following response:
Cantwell’s dignified and emphatic response generated a lot of positive support for her and the other young women, and so far, has been shared on Facebook over 8,000 times. Cantwell has done numerous interviews with media throughout Canada, and will be traveling to Toronto next May to participate in the Count Me In Leadership Summit.
Unfortunately, not every student has Cantwell’s self-confidence. Far too many are wounded, some badly, by the thoughtless cruelty of these types of polls. As with so many other aspects of the modern digital world, it’s not the tool that is the issue but how it is used. Neither schools nor parents should condone this type of behavior; more importantly, instruction on digital citizenship should begin in kindegarten and continue through high school graduation.
And kids: You may think that these services allow you to create polls “anonymously,” but what happens on the Internet tends not to stay on the Internet. Anyonymity is largely a myth. Think about it.