Freep this poll!

October 9th, 2008 by Grace Meng

Have you ever been asked to “Freep this poll”?

The word “freep” comes from the “Free Republic,” an online forum for conservatives where its members are regularly informed of online polls and told to go vote en masse.  Although they don’t necessarily admit to “cheating” the polls, they have been accused of clearing cookies or otherwise circumventing the systems set up to prevent one person from voting multiple times.

Conservatives aren’t the only ones “freeping,” though.  The term has migrated across the political spectrum, and readers of decidedly more liberal sites, like DailyKos, are regularly asked to freep a poll.  And right after a presidential debate is prime freeping time for everyone, as nearly every newspaper and cable news channel will set up online polls asking, “Who won?”

I think freeping is great.

Freeping makes obvious how ridiculously inaccurate online polls can be.  Der Spiegel, a German magazine, was shocked when a 2004 online poll asking readers to rate President Bush’s performance in office was rated “excellent” by 59% of its readers–it turned out it had been freeped.  When freeping skews results to the point that no one can believe them, well, that’s a blow for truth, not ideology.

But being an ever-so-optimistic sort of person, I think freeping also shows the potential of online polls, and online measures of public opinion in general, to be more accurate than they are today.  Online polls are popular, despite being obviously inaccurate, because they’re cheap and fun (for those who just can’t get enough of sharing their opinions).  Most of all, at least in theory, they can reach a much larger group of people than professional pollsters.

The problem is that this larger group, even before freepers get involved, is shaped by the website and the audience it tends to draw.  (And of course, the world of people online is already smaller than the world as a whole.)  It wasn’t surprising, nor particularly revealing, that the people who went to the conservative Drudge Report and voted in its poll rating the Palin-Biden VP debate overwhelmingly found that Palin had won.  But if liberal online politicos had freeped the poll, they could have made the poll more representative of our country’s mix of conservatives and liberals.  And vice versa.

My point is that freeping, as creepy as it seems, is one of those strategies that’s open to everyone, left, right, liberal, conservative, polka-dotted or striped.  Some people will always just enjoy freeping for the sake of messing up the system, to enjoy their power to clear cookies and skew polls, though as I stated above, that can easily go so far that no one believes the results.  But if freeping pushes people to participate in polls in forums where they normally wouldn’t be heard, well, that sounds kind of democratic.  Sure, we still have that problem with ensuring one vote per person, but if we thought online polling could have more than entertainment value, maybe we would try harder to come up with better systems.  (I wonder if it would be possible to set up an online poll that actually let you vote as often as you wanted, but indicated you had done so.  Sometimes it’s entertaining to see who cares the most, or maybe more accurately, has the most time on his hands.)  As Mimi stated earlier, choosing to participate in polls, surveys, and studies that shape our world and our lives is increasingly becoming as democratic a duty as voting in the election booth.

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