Is There a Right to Data Collection?

What’s more socially harmful: politicians not knowing what sound bite will play well or voters being mislead by scurrilous misinformation?

New Hampshire is one state where legislators listened when voters complained about “push-polling” — the practice of making campaign calls that masquerade as surveys or polls.  Perhaps the most infamous example is George Bush’s campaign calling South Carolinians to ask what they think if John McCain were to have fathered an illegitimate black baby.

The gist of M. D. Shear’s article, Law Has Polling Firms Leery of Work in New Hampshire” (NYT 1 March 2012) is that pollsters and political consultants are whining that “legitimate” operations are getting gun-shy about polling in New Hampshire for fear of being fined.  Actual surveys won’t get done, they suggest, because poorly worded legislation creates too much illegitimate legal liability.

They do not take issue with what the law requires and some even call it well-intentioned. Paragraph 16a of section 664 of Title  53 of New Hampshire statutes requires those who administer push-polls to identify themselves as doing so on behalf of a candidate or issue. In other words, if that’s what you are up to, you need to say so.

The problem, they say, is that the law is poorly written — good intentions gone bad, they suggest.  So, what does the statute actually say?  Not so ambiguous, really.  It says if you call pretending to be taking a survey but really you are spreading information about opposition candidates then you are push-polling:

XVII. “Push-polling” means:

  1. Calling voters on behalf of, in support of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office by telephone; and
  2. Asking questions related to opposing candidates for public office which state, imply, or convey information about the candidates’ character, status, or political stance or record; and
  3. Conducting such calling in a manner which is likely to be construed by the voter to be a survey or poll to gather statistical data for entities or organizations which are acting independent of any particular political party, candidate, or interest group.

And so, the question arises: why aren’t pollsters themselves taking steps to stamp out the practice?  One supposes the answer is that they still want to use it, even if the “good guys” would not stoop to the level of sleaziness that Bush and Lee Atwater practiced.

Interestingly, one of the objections that the pollsters raised was that “complying with the law by announcing the candidate sponsoring the poll would corrupt the data being gathered.”  It’s interesting because they don’t think that constantly adjusting question wording and techniques that are technically push-polling even if they could stay inside the New Hampshire law would corrupt the data.

But this brings me to my real point.  As a practicing social scientist I am consistently disheartened and often angered at the abuse of survey research engaged in by political parties and organizations.   I receive “surveys” from the DNC, DCCC, Greenpeace, Sierra Club,, etc. etc. that triply insult me:

  • They are, in fact, often push-polls (if gentle ones) whose real purpose is to inform and incite not collect data.
  • They are couched disingenuously in terms of providing me an opportunity for input, to have my voice heard.
  • As research instruments they are almost always C- or worse, violating the most basic tenets of survey construction.

Perhaps I should just humor them and wink since we do both know what’s really going on.  Sometimes the political actor in me is content to do so.  But at other times the information order pollution that they represent really gets to me.  These things corrupt the data of other legitimate research efforts. If the results are used, they amplify the error in the information order.  These things undermine social information trust.  They cheapen the very idea of opinion research.  Imagine a certain amount of what passes as clinical trials is really just PR for pharmaceutical companies.  Or imagine that the “high stakes testing” used to study the education system was really just a ploy to indoctrinate children.  Or that marine biologists were just sending a message to the mollusks they study.

As a consultant helping organizations do research I used to ask “are you trying to find out something or are you trying to show something?” To this we could add “or are you just putting on a show?”

There’s something disturbing when an industry like political polling can’t do better than suggest that the one state that has taken steps to address a real democracy-threatening practice within that industry is somehow “the problem.”  A republican pollster whined that the law has “a harmful effect on legitimate survey research and message testing that really impairs our ability to do credible polling,” as if we should care.  It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that a little ignorance on the part of politicians about attitudes in New Hampshire as the price for stopping a practice that corrupts public deliberation is a tradeoff well worth making.

radio + internet + letter to your senator = democracy in action

This project, reported by WNYC and npr’s On the Media is one of the best uses of web crowd sourcing I’ve heard about.

They ask listeners across the country to write their senator asking whether s/he placed a particular anonymous hold and then to submit the response. To date they collected 96 written denials and four “it’s none of your business!”. Step two is to reword the question and have residents of four states pose them in writing. Rather brilliant.

I also love the implicit claim to inequality in the “it is our privilege to keep secrets from our constituents” stance. This is what Gillian and I are writing about in our paper “Democracy and the Information Order.”

Wikileaks Conversation Continues

Interesting piece in NYT blog “The Lede” about online activists’ response to credit card companies and PayPal “blacklisting” Wikileaks. 

The entry includes the YouTube “manifesto” of the group (or, rather, decentralized network) “Anonymous” that claims to be at the center of this backlash.

The Times Blog gives a list of related posts:

Leaking Irony

While I work on more extended analysis of the WikiLeaks situation (among other things the obvious connection to my work on how geometries of information sharing are co-constitutive of social relationships and statuses), a small irony must be noted.

Apparently, several news organizations have had the material recently made public since August.  Editors and reporters have been meeting in secret to develop protocols about what would be reported, when, and how.  Fortunately for their work, it appears that these journalists managed to do all of this while maintaining the kind of secrecy necessary for them to be able to process the information and to consider its meaning and its implications out of public view.  The public, media, and official reaction of the last few days make clear why this secrecy was necessary.

One thing that would be interesting to hear a story on would be what measures were taken to ensure the security of the process.  What sorts of technological tools were employed?  What sorts of social tools?  Did participants have to sign confidentiality agreements?   What prevented a rogue reporter from reporting on the reporters reporting?

Regulating the Supply of Law

From the “Friends and Relatives of the Department” Files…
The ways that states regulate professions is a topic of sociological interest.  The degree to which citizens have access to legal services to solve legal problems is a topic of sociological interest. As argued previously on this blog(“Equality, Information and the Courts Redux,” “Democracy and the Information Order,” “Courts and the Information Order,” “Suing for Information“), the way the courts work is a topic of sociology of information interest. In this op-ed, these issues come together in a sociologically interesting way. You may recognize the author of the piece as my sometime co-author (and wife).
— Dan.

A case for legal aid at Wal-Mart

By Gillian Hadfield
Friday, March 12, 2010

The United States stands largely alone in advanced-market democracies in drastically restricting where and how people can get help with their legal problems. In all states, under rules created by bar associations and state supreme courts, only people with law degrees and who are admitted to the state bar can provide legal advice and services of any kind. [Read More]

Madoff, Courts, Information, and Reform

NPR’s All Things Considered carried a piece on 29 June titled “Madoff Victim: Financier’s Apology Does Nothing” that contained an interview with, Miriam Siegman, an investor who lost her life’s savings to Madoff who had spoken in court at the sentencing hearing. The interviewer asks Siegman whether the experience offered any catharsis.

It did not:I guess not really and the reason I say that is…what I think all of us had hoped for was the truth that might have come up at trial. You know, when you have a trial you have subpoena power and people get on the stand and are cross-examined….

She goes on to say that she worries that there will be meaningful changes to the system.

When a comment like this is heard from someone engaged in a lawsuit we sometimes dismiss it as window dressing covering up the fact that, really, “it’s about the money.” But in this case the statement comes from someone who (1) is not going to receive money, (2) has, in fact, already lost all her money, and (3) who got from the court one result she wanted — a maximal sentence for the defendant.

Two things are sociologically interesting here. First, Ms. Siegman says “I think all of us had hoped for” and she speaks of change of the system. These are not empty and platitudinous comments, I think. This is an example of “speaking for society.” In fact, the judge, in explaining the 150 year sentence he imposed, spoke of the importance of symbolism, an important dimension of “the social.” But Ms. Siegman’s answer points us toward something important. The interviewer was asking “did the courtroom process provide you with any emotional or psychological benefit?” and she replied not just “no” but by changing the terms of the question. This is not about the emotional payoff from “having one’s say” but rather about the court as a venue where we, collectively, can find out, as equals, what others, who have set themselves over us (she’d earlier said that she felt that Madoff had treated his victims like “roadkill”) know. This is precisely the “informational equality” that Gillian Hadfield and I have written about under the phrase “Democracy and the Information Order” (also the subject of several other posts in this blog: here and here).

Siegman’s statement is a perfect illustration of the social value of the informational role of courts. The victims got the most they could have hoped for on the vengeance dimension, but because the case was settled with a plea bargain they were denied something important. Legal efficiency was perhaps achieved — punishment was meted out at minimum expense. But perhaps this was done at a cost: a deficit in the democratic function of law — victims and non-victims, equal members of the democratic polity are left wondering how this happened, how this could happen. It may be that various official inquiries by the SEC, by congressional panels, by the Madoff trustee, or by investigative journalism will ferret out answers to such questions, but the victims, the people, will be passive recipients of the information produced by those processes, not equal participants in the asking.

And she may also be right on a social-efficiency dimension: reform might be more likely if the courts got to play this informational role in a case like this. But that’s an empirical question.

Whose Information?

Robert Smith had a piece (“Sept. 11 Families Want Confidential Files Released“) on NPR’s Morning Edition today that dovetails nicely with a number of posts that have appeared here* on the relationship between courts and the information order. Our argument has been that courts play a role in enacting an important relational component of equality in a democracy: under certain circumstances, formal equals cannot arbitrarily withhold information from one another.

The three remaining plaintiffs are arguing that materials they’ve obtained during the discovery phase of their trial — materials about airline and airport security on 9/11 — should be made public. The defendants are claiming that the material is meant for “the lawyers’ eyes only.”

The case reminds us of the informational role played by courts and civil litigation. As generic members of the public who happened to have been singled out by having a relative killed on 9/11 these plaintiffs are exercising their formal informational equality before the court. They get to say “tell us what you know about that day” and the usually much more powerful organizations are not allowed, in this forum, to say, “we don’t have to tell you.”

Now the question is whether their right to ask (and be answered) is tied to their formal status as equals before the court as a place where information “comes to light,” or whether it’s interpreted in strictly transactional terms — since their lawsuit requires the information, they may see it, but the other party gets to maintain its right to say “we don’t have to tell you” to the public at large.

Even apart from how the judge rules on the contest between the public interest of disclosure and the private interest of confidentiality here, in light of the frenzied demand for “confidential corporate information” from the bailed out insurer AIG in recent weeks, we might remind ourselves that the airlines received a pretty hefty bailout from the taxpayers after 9/11. Perhaps they’ll want to be careful about how vigorously they argue that the public does not have the right to know.

*See these posts:

  1. Equality, Information and the Courts Redux: The Dan Rather Report,”
  2. Democracy and the Information Order,”
  3. Courts and the Information Order,”
  4. Suing for Information

See also:

  1. Hadfield, Gillian. 2009. “Framing the Choice Between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences With the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.Law & Society Review, Volume 42, Issue 3 (p 645-682)
  2. Hadfield, Gillian and Dan Ryan. “Democracy and the Information Order” (unpublished draft)
  3. Weiser, Benjamin. “Value of Suing Over 9/11 Deaths Is Still Unsettled.New York Times, March 12, 2009.