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American Association for Public Opinion Research

Web Surveys Unlikely to Represent All Views

Non-scientific polling technique proliferating during Campaign 2000

September 28, 2000 -- Ann Arbor ---Many Web-based surveys fail to represent the views of all Americans and thus give a misleading picture of public opinion, say officials of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), the leading professional association for public opinion researchers.

One of the biggest problems with doing online surveys is that half the country does not have access to the Internet," said AAPOR president Murray Edelman. "For a public opinion survey to be representative of the American public, all Americans must have a chance to be selected to participate in the survey."

Edelman released a new statement by the AAPOR Council, the executive group of the professional organization, giving its stance on online surveys.

Examples of recent Web-based polls that produced misleading findings include:

  • Various online polls during the presidential primaries showed Alan Keyes, Orrin Hatch, or Steve Forbes as the favored Republican candidate. No scientifically conducted public opinion polls ever corroborated any of these findings.
  • At the same time that a Web-based poll reported that a majority of Americans disapproved of the government action to remove Elian Gonzalez, a scientific poll of a random national sample of Americans showed that 57% approved of that action. 

Edelman said that AAPOR is seeking to alert journalists and the public in advance of the upcoming presidential debates that many post-debate polls taken online may be just as flawed and misleading as these examples.

Lack of universal access to the Internet is just one problem that invalidates many Web-based surveys. In some applications of the technology, individuals may choose for themselves whether or not to participate in a survey, and in some instances, respondents can participate in the same survey more than once. Both practices violate scientific polling principles and invalidate the results of such surveys.

"Many online polls are compromised because they are based on the responses of only those people who happened to volunteer their opinions on the survey," said Michael Traugott, past president of AAPOR. "For a survey to be scientific, the respondents must be chosen by a carefully designed sampling process that is completely controlled by the researcher."

Because of problems such as these, AAPOR urges journalists and others who evaluate polls for public dissemination to ask the following questions:

  1. Does the online poll claim that the results are representative of a specific population, such as the American public?
  2. If so, are the results based upon a scientific sampling procedure that gives every member of the population a chance to be selected?
  3. Did each respondent have only one opportunity to answer the questions?
  4. Are the results of the online survey similar to the results of scientific polls conducted at the same time?
  5. What was the response rate for the study?

Only if the answer to the first four questions is "yes" and the response rate is reported, should the online poll results be considered for inclusion in a news story.

Only when a Web-based survey adheres to established principles of scientific data collection can it be characterized as representing the population from which the sample was drawn. But if it uses volunteer respondents, allows respondents to participate in the survey more than once, or excludes portions of the population from participation, it must be characterized as unscientific and is unrepresentative of any population.