The Washington Post’s NSA survey is biassed

The Washington Post recently published the results of a survey that purports to show that:

the public backs giving the federal government broad authority to investigate terrorist threats, even extending to the NSA program that monitors phone records

Their first question shows a 2:1 split in favour of the authoritarian position:

What do you think is more important right now for the federal government: to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy OR not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats?

a. Don’t invade privacy (34%) OR
b. Investigate threats (62%)

Those were terrible yes/no options that absolutely do not allow people to express a nuanced view. This is not an either/or issue. A moderate would say that authorities should usually respect privacy, but they should also investigate serious threats.

The wording of the options guides moderate respondents towards the authoritarian position. Option a. “don’t invade privacy” is an extreme, equivalent to “never invade privacy”. But option b. “investigate threats” allows for the moderate position “investigate only serious threats”. A moderate respondent will want a little of both, so they can only choose b.

Let’s rephrase the options to be biassed in the other direction, so that moderates must favour a.:

a. Respect privacy OR
b. Treat everyone as a potential threat

Finally, here’s a balanced version, where a moderate can safely choose either answer:

a. Respect privacy OR
b. Investigate threats

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