Autocratic regimes, by their nature, tend to view the opinions of their populations as a threat to be stifled. Over the years, leaders from Syria to North Korea have sharpened their tools of repression to squelch any sign of public dissatisfaction with their rule and keep their population's views a mystery to outside observers. As a result, information about how these citizens view their government has long existed in a vacuum -- at the mercy of hearsay and conjecture. But a small cadre of pollsters is using new technologies and practices to circumvent government restrictions and give a voice to the silenced. We like to call them guerrilla pollsters.
We've been intimately involved in the effort to conduct public-opinion surveys in countries controlled by authoritarian regimes. In January, we completed the analysis of an in-person survey of 1,046 adults living in Syria. The poll, conducted by the Democracy Council, a California-based NGO, was the first face-to-face survey collected by an unsanctioned organization on the ground in Syria.
Democracy Council had to overcome several hurdles to pull off the survey. First, it had to find 60 qualified interviewers in a country where such data collection is illegal and then train them from scratch. The interviewers were recruited by word of mouth, and each was put through an extensive background check to make sure that he or she had no association with the Syrian government. They were also screened for educational requirements and adequate written and verbal communication skills.
New technology greatly assisted in the training process. Democracy Council prepared its field staff using Skype, the well-known Internet calling service, which now allows videoconferencing. Skype provided several advantages: The calls are encrypted, so any messages intercepted by Syrian security services would be unintelligible, and videoconferencing avoided the need for any in-person gathering, which might have attracted the attention of the authorities. This method also kept the interviewers' identities a mystery to each other. Even if a government agent managed to pass the extensive background check, at least he or she wouldn't know the identities of the other fieldworkers.
Interviewers then sought out potential subjects with whom to conduct an in-person interview that lasted approximately 30 minutes. The fieldworkers were guided by Syrian statisticians and demographers to ensure that the data collected were representative of the Syrian population. Because security risks made it impossible to gather a completely representative sample, the research team at Pepperdine University that prepared the independent survey report weighted the survey data to ensure that the final results were nationally representative based on age, sex, location, religion, and education.
The survey findings reflected poorly on the Syrian government and quickly spread through the media. The poll found that a majority of Syrians believe that their political and economic situation is poor and worse than it was five years ago. They consider the government to be corrupt and have little faith in its ability to confront the country's problems. A substantial majority believes the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963 and used to justify violations of civil liberties, should be lifted, and a majority reported that it would leave Syria if it had the opportunity to do so.
But more important than the findings is that the data exists at all. A public-opinion poll was successfully conducted within a closed regime, and without its consent. And as the critical account of the Syrian government's performance showed, Syrians weren't reluctant to speak their minds. Given the high risks to both the data collectors and the survey respondents, it is stunning just how willing these citizens were to talk.
Due to the unique circumstances under which the survey was conducted, it did face some hurdles that required us to make some adjustments to achieve a representative sample of the population. Among survey respondents, for example, men outnumbered women 2 to 1. We corrected for this disparity by giving more weight to women's responses in the final results. It is unclear whether the relative reluctance of women to participate in the survey was the result of their lesser interest in politics -- men reported a higher consumption of political news -- or whether they were more fearful of retribution. This does raise a concern that survey results might be skewed to those who are more politically minded.