The deceptive SWS survey on martial law extension

Thursday December 28, 2017 ()

Let's do a quick survey. Ask several people this question and note their replies:

How much do you agree with this statement: "Because the military reports continuing terrorist threats after its victory in Marawi, there is need to extend martial law in Mindanao beyond its end date of December 31, 2017"?

Now, try the following question on a different set of people:

Martial law extension surveys

How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "Because the war in Marawi City is over, there is no need to extend martial law beyond its end date on December 31, 2017"?

Which question would get responses showing greater agreement with ML extension, and which would tend to elicit more disagreement?

If one did a nationwide survey of 1,300 randomly selected respondents using the first question, most people would have agreed. Try it.

However, it was the second question that Social Weather Stations used in its December 8-6 poll. No wonder it got 62 percent disagreeing with extension.

Polling questions skew results

There are three lessons here.

First, surveys can be skewed by the questions, as the SWS poll on martial law extension was.

By highlighting the end of the Marawi war, SWS gave the false impression that victory was the primary consideration in deciding whether to extend ML. It is not, as most, if not all terrorism experts will argue.

Pretty much every security analyst has pointed out that the extremist threat remains even after defeating the Islamic State-driven terrorists who besieged Marawi. And a good number of experts say the peril may even get worse.

Hence, the more weighty consideration for ML extension, which should have been cited in the survey, was the threat assessments of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police. One may not agree with the AFP and the PNP, but their reports were the primary consideration when Congress voted to let martial law continue, not the end of the Marawi war.

Moreover, instead of asking whether extension was necessary, the SWS survey statement was framed in the negative: "... there is no need to extend martial law."

The question then highlighted ending martial law, rather than extending it.

Moreover, the negative construction made the question more complicated than an affirmative statement. Respondents had to bear in mind that they were being asked if they agreed not to do something, rather than to do it.

This introduces the possibility that those hard of hearing or slow of thought might then be confused into thinking that the question was asking if one agreed with extending martial law, when in fact, it was about not extending it.

The possible misunderstanding may have been further compounded in the Filipino statement actually used in the survey:

"Dahil tapos na ang giyera sa Marawi City, hindi na kailangan palawigin pa ang martial law nang lagpas ng takda nitong pagtatapos sa December 31, 2017."

How many respondents know that "palawigin" means to extend? Even most Tagalogs may not know it, let alone speakers of other dialects, who make up the bulk of respondents. Surely, "patagalin" or "palampasin" would have been a far better word — unless widespread understanding was not the objective.

Mixing up trust and threat

Even more distorting was the question on the AFP's capability in defeating the terrorism without martial law:

How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "The Armed Forces of the Philippines or AFP can suppress the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf even without martial law"?

This question brings us to the second lesson in the SWS survey on martial law: Be careful about mixing two issues or opinions in one question.

That's what the second ML question does. It ends up polling two views which are totally different, making it hard to tell which one the respondent is expressing: his or her confidence in the military's capability, and the gravity of the terrorist threat.

It is the danger to public safety from rebellion or invasion which is the condition required by the Constitution for declaring and extending martial law, not the strength of security forces.

Now, people may agree with the statement out of sheer adulation for the AFP, especially after its Marawi triumph, regardless of how serious a danger terrorist rebellion may pose.

So, the second question ends up polling an issue of no legal or operational consequence — military strength and popularity — to the issue of extending martial law.

Bottom line: Even if the army and the police could defeat terrorism without martial law, it may still be justified and constitutional if without its declaration or extension, so many more attacks could be mounted, so many more innocents could be killed, and so much more mayhem could be unleashed by extremists before they are defeated.

Governance by opinion poll

The third lesson in the SWS poll on martial law is one that would never be said by any politically correct person, especially one whose career ambitions depend on media and public support.

Popular opinion should not always be a key factor in public policy and decisions.

This especially applies to matters of governance where the public does not have sufficient information, expertise and judgment to make right and prudent assessments and actions.

On extending ML, should it be decided according to the views and opinions of the great majority of Filipinos living outside Mindanao and lacking in knowledge of its security situation?

What about Mindanaoans possessing no intelligence reports on terrorism? Should they have a big say on how to deal with Daesh-linked extremists and the communist National People's Army?

That would be like letting surveys decide whether a new vaccine should be widely used or if interest rates should go up. Quite simply, most people don't have the knowledge to decide such technical matters.

So, next time one reads about Filipinos favoring or opposing policy actions, immediately ask: Is that issue something that ordinary people know enough about to decide correctly?

If it isn't, the survey may make headlines, but not decisions.


  • Martial law: Another deceptive SWS survey, Ricardo Saludo, December 28, 2017, The Manila Times

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