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Analysis Politics Rhetoric Semantics

The Polls and Headlines of Modern Propaganda

A recent poll question sponsored by USA Today/Suffolk University has caused quite a stir in the media…

President Trump has called the Special Counsel’s investigation a ‘witch hunt’ and said he’s been subjected to more investigations than previous presidents because of politics. Do you agree?

Unless they are tuned for detecting bullshit, poll respondents will not always notice that this is a loaded question. This should always be suspect when the question is a simple yes or no reference to a separate sentence that actually says two different things. So what are we agreeing with? That the investigation is a ‘witch hunt’ or that Trump has been subjected to more investigations than previous presidents? What if you don’t agree that the investigation is a witch hunt but recognize the fact that Trump has been under more investigations than previous presidents?

The poll leaves no room for specific answers and instead asks for only one simple “yes” or “no”. Another key to this technique is to base the “convincing” statement on facts. At this point in time, there are no measurable ways to qualify Trump’s assumption that the investigation is a witch hunt, yet the number of investigations into presidents past and present is a matter of fact and people respond more readily to information that they can recognize as such. So it’s a question that uses a factual statement to solicit a “yes” answer that gives a piggy-back ride to a non-factual statement that by itself might not have encouraged the same response.

But this isn’t where the trickery stops.

It’s hard to imagine that when USA Today partnered with Suffolk University, they weren’t thinking ahead to publishing the results. Sometimes that can add another level to the deception, the misleading headline. Here’s how it looked on USA Today…

Poll: Half of Americans say Trump is victim of a ‘witch hunt’ as trust in Mueller erodes

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/18/trust-mueller-investigation-falls-half-americans-say-trump-victim-witch-hunt/3194049002/

There is also this one from the National-Review, referencing the same poll…

Poll: 50 Percent Say Mueller Investigation Is ‘Witch Hunt’

https://www.nationalreview.com/news/poll-50-percent-say-mueller-investigation-is-witch-hunt/

Notice how in both headlines, the factual statement about the number of investigations completely disappeared? The job of that statement is done, it got “yes” answers from 50% of the respondents but it’s obviously the other statement that gets all the attention in the headline.

So nice job USA Today,