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.
Nevertheless, we are confident that the methods pioneered with this survey provide a broadly representative portrayal of Syrian public opinion and that they can be duplicated in other repressive regimes. For example, foreign observers have had a hard enough time deciphering high-level political developments in North Korea, where leader Kim Jong Il has begun transferring power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un — let alone parsing what the North Korean people think about this succession plan.
But an increasing number of innovators are working to change that. Kim Eun Ho is a former police officer from North Korea who defected to the South in 2008. Since then, he has worked as a reporter for Seoul-based Free North Korea Radio. With the aid of a friend and a smuggled cell phone, he is circumventing North Korea’s leadership to solicit opinions from its citizens.
Kim conducts a nightly public-opinion poll of North Korean residents, the first poll of its kind and illegal in North Korea. Here’s how it works: Kim calls his friend in North Korea on a smuggled cell phone. The friend then uses a North Korean land line to call a subject and presses the cell phone against the handset of the landline phone, allowing Kim to conduct a brief interview.
If the interviewee were discovered by the police, they would almost certainly be punished — perhaps severely. To circumvent the North Korean police, Kim has tailored his questions so that they take about 90 seconds to answer. He tapped phones himself as a North Korean police officer, and he estimates that it takes about two to three minutes for the police to trace a call.
The phone calls reveal a great dissatisfaction with the hereditary succession and question whether Kim Jong Un is qualified to lead. Kim Eun Ho has not yet published his results, but in an interview with the Washington Post, he noted that every person he has spoken with expressed reservations about Kim Jong Un taking over.
Kim’s guerrilla polling outfit is unlikely to produce data that are as accurate, say, as an aboveboard survey conducted by a reputable polling agency in the United States. He is limited to mainly one province of North Korea, and his results may be biased toward those more critical of the regime. However, it does provide a picture of North Korean public opinion where none existed before. With just a smuggled cell phone and a 90-second questionnaire, Kim has created a remarkable innovation that could revolutionize data collection within this notoriously secretive regime.
The original guerrilla pollsters, such the Democracy Council with its Syria poll, have benefited from an enormous advantage: the element of surprise. By now, however, Syria’s security apparatus is well aware of the existence of the opinion poll and the methods used to collect its data. The findings were sufficiently embarrassing to the regime that it will have a strong incentive to quash any future attempts to conduct a similar survey. The challenge for guerrilla pollsters is to always stay one step ahead.
Rapidly evolving communications tools will be hugely helpful. The next generation of guerrilla pollsters will have new ways to use portable satellite phones and modems to circumvent the government-monitored mobile systems and Internet service providers. Although many repressive governments have claimed to be able to monitor all cyberactivities, creative use of proxy servers can thwart these regimes’ attempts to do so.
Improvements in the speed of satellite Internet and miniaturization of technology make getting information out of these countries much easier. In the past, uploading information via satellite Internet was nearly impossible due its slow speed and the difficulty in making a connection between a modem and its dedicated satellite. Improvements in technology have now largely resolved these problems, and, as an added advantage, satellite Internet is useful and very cost-effective for reaching rural areas.
Although guerrilla polling is still in its infancy, it holds the potential to provide valuable new insights into previously closed societies. There is now great interest in expanding the scope of guerrilla polling to places like Cuba or Iran. And as pollsters fine-tune their methods and harness more sophisticated technology, these polls will offer an increasingly accurate portrait of public opinion in authoritarian regimes. The information vacuum is over.