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"Fake sociology": a note for the user

The number of false ("fake") information is constantly increasing, and, as BISR has already noted, it is becoming one of the most common tools of manipulating the public consciousness.

Sociology has a large number of tools and research methods. At the same time, in the ordinary sense it is most often associated with a somewhat simplified formula "Came. Saw. Interviewed", i.e. with an interview as the most popular method of studying the public opinion.

By the way, very few know that in the Soviet Union practically the first full sociological study across the whole country was carried out in the early 1930s by ... Samuil Marshak, who compiled and synthesized a vast array of letters with answers from the Soviet children to the question, what in their opinion, a children's book should be, which he asked through a newspaper.

The poll actually helps to reveal the latest hidden and obvious trends, to track the dynamics of change in the public mood, to predict possible scenarios with a high degree of probability, to propose solutions to the problems disturbing the society. However, the results of the numerous surveys presented in the news feeds of the Internet resources cannot always be fully trusted.

For example, at the end of November 2019 the headlines were full of reports that "almost 90% of the Belarusians were in favor of the union with Russia". Review of the primary source revealed that 90% came from the incorrect sum of two completely different indicators: those who consider union relations with Russia acceptable for Belarus (58%), and those who believe that the two countries should have partner relations (32%).

Increasingly popular surveys of the Telegram-channel in which participate tens of thousands of subscribers, at the first glance, far exceeds the capabilities of the sociologists with their usual Republican sampling amounting to 1600-2000 respondents.

It should however be borne in mind that even in case of the correct wording of the questions, the Telegram-poll gives the opinion survey of the visitors of only one channel, without taking into account its socio-demographic, occupational and other characteristics necessary for sociological research. Consequently, such a survey can be interesting and even somewhat useful (e.g., for marketing purposes to identify the preferences of a particular audience), but it is impossible to judge about the mood of the society in general.

Taking into account the basic rules - "litmus paper" of a high-quality social research will support the recognition of the reliability or incorrectness "of the recent survey results", published in the media. These include:

  1. information about the source. Full name of the organization or structure conducting the surveys, and in the case of scientific research - names and publications of the authors.

During the elections of the President of the Republic of Belarus in 2010 the effective communications agency INSIDE (Russia) allegedly conducted an exit poll at 20 polling stations in Minsk, Brest, Vitebsk and Lida. Later, the agency announced that the unofficial exit poll was a graduate paper... Concerning the exit poll by SOCIUM, which allegedly was carried out during the same presidential elections, it turned out that such sociological service does not exist.

  1. Research method and sampling. Absence of a full description of the methods and sample calculations makes it impossible to draw a conclusion about the reliability, representativeness and validity of the published information. In this case the large scale of the survey does not mean its reliability. Also, a survey conducted in a small group (e.g., among friends), cannot be extrapolated to the society in general.

George Gallup accurately and vividly defined the essence of sampling: "To appreciate the taste of a cooked soup, it is not necessary to scoop the pot to the bottom. It is enough to stir the soup and taste one spoon".

  1. Area of the survey. Regional cross-section can accurately "highlight" the local problems of concern for the population.

News headline "The survey was conducted in all cities/villages of Belarus" contains false information, because the sample never includes "all cities".

  1. Wording of questions. Incorrectly worded question distorts the information obtained.

The general rule of the survey is that the question must contain a single question. For example, the next question contains two different questions, making it impossible to obtain reliable information: "Do you know that the company "ABCD" is selling electronic toys and is the only manufacturer in our region?".

Besides the incorrect wording, the question may also contain open manipulation. A classic example is the question: "Has it been long since you were abused last time?", in which any answer ("Yes, long ago", or "No, recently") is affirmative.

  1. Complete survey data. The questionnaire and the results tables are usually published in full in a separate appendix to any shared research. Their absence in the analytical report or a scientific paper gives reason to doubt the quality of the information provided.

The fight against fakes and sleazes is endless and requires considerable resources. Knowledge and use of the basic rules of working with information will contribute to the creation of "information immunity" of the population, as well as to the improvement of the quality and accuracy of content placed.

Nikolai Sukhotsky