How Adding Poll Wording Changes People's Approval of the NSA's Data Snooping

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 26 2013 1:51 PM

How to Get More People to Approve of the NSA's Data Snooping: Just Add "Terrorism"!

This new National Security Agency data farming center in Bluffdale, Utah, is set to open in the fall of 2013.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

While Edward Snowden was circling classified ads in the Moscow Times, the Pew Research Center did a fun experiment with question wording to see how phrasing affects respondents' approval of the National Security Agency's data mining programs.

Pew asked people whether they approve or disapprove of the NSA's data farming, slightly altering the question wording for different respondents. Two phrases in particular helped NSA approval: a question that mentioned the role of "court approval" saw a 12-point increase in approval, and saying the program was "part of anti-terrorism efforts" upped the approval rating by 9 points—with similar levels of support raised from Republicans and Democrats alike. (Even still, the favor-oppose breakdown for the terrorism question was 35-57.)

Mentioning Court Approval, Terrorism Increases NSA Support

"Court approval" is a little misleading, though. Lumping in the FISA Court with other judicial bodies is sort of like referring to Scientology as a run-of-the-mill religion. It's an institution that deals in secrecy (not without reason) and only hears the side of one powerful player—the U.S. government.

Another less juicy but still intriguing tidbit: The approval rating for NSA snooping into "phone calls" vs. "email communications" is the same, at 31 points, and sees close to the same disapproval. One theory is that smartphone ownership has made us all agnostic to which data we care gets leaked.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.


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