Public Support For The Government's Surveillance Programs Depends On How You Word The Question

Edward Snowden

There’s no question that National Security Agency leak source Edward Snowden has sparked debate and strong feelings across the political aisle about the agency’s surveillance programs. 

For most of the American public, though, approval of these programs depends on how pollsters describe them and their purposes. 

In a new poll out Friday, the Pew Research centre measured people’s responses to different versions of descriptions of the programs. What they found, overall, was that 50% of Americans say they approve of the NSA’s collection of “phone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.” On the other hand, 44% disapprove.

Pew then measured approval of the program by conducting four “wording tests”:

  • In the first, they asked whether people approve of the government “collecting data” vs. “collecting recordings, or the text.” The Obama administration has defended the program in question here by saying it only collects metadata on telephone calls.
  • In the second, Pew asked for approval on the mode of collection — email vs. phone data.
  • In the third, they asked for approval when adding a mention that it requires court approval — even though the court that approves the government’s request, the FISA court, is shrouded in relative secrecy.
  • The fourth question is distinguished with a mention of its anti-terrorism efforts, another common defence from the Obama administration. 

Pew found that the biggest differences in approval came with mentions of court approval and as a tool to fight against terrorism. Still, it should be noted that in every case of this survey, more people opposed than favoured the programs.

Here’s a look:

Mentioning Court Approval, Terrorism Increases NSA Support

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