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You are wrong about the number of people who agree with you

Vlad Vexler noticed that nearly everyone online was certain that Putin sent a body double to Mariupol rather than visiting himself. Then he ran a poll, which revealed that most people weren’t quite so sure, and actually more people thought it was more likely that Putin did go himself.

The point being that it is very hard to tell from the shouting and hollering in, say, social media commentary, what proportion of people really agree with a thing.

That institution might underestimate how much of the general population are actually not on board with these projects. It could happen because some of the leading newspapers, most of the universities, much of the discourse in the social media forums normalise something that might in fact have only persuaded a section of the population. It could be even some kind of elite, some kind of educated elite or some kind of urban elite or whatever. But that institution, let’s say the BBC, might go on as though actually 80% of the population are persuaded and it’s only 12% that are sort of not quite there because they’re irrational or because they are backward or don’t see things that way. But they’re a minority anyway. The problem isn’t whether these social justice projects are right or wrong; the problem is you’re assuming an act of persuasion has happened that hasn’t happened. […]

It’s so toxic to broadcast to the country and pretend that the 20% represents the 80%.

It can work the other way, too. In Vexler’s example, if the BBC writes an article and 7000 comments complain about it and only 1000 comments agree with it, it might become scared of shifting tides of culture, that the majority are against them, and they might start to take defensive measures; to treat as normal a minority opinion.

Vexler argues that these kinds of misjudgements cause political shifts and are dangerous for democracy. Even on a small scale I think it is unhelpful to go around thinking that Twitter, for example, reveals very much about what people are, in general, thinking.

You are almost certainly wrong, one way or another, about how many people agree with you*.

*Unless you are libertarian. Then the answer is 11

15 comments to You are wrong about the number of people who agree with you

  • bobby b

    I was never really surprised and wrong about elections prior to jumping on social media, TWtr, etc.

    Since I started, I have, a few times, been amazed and dismayed at results that I honestly did not expect.

    It cocoons you, you hear one channel, and you can’t tell the breadth or width of that channel.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I am part of a coterie of libertarians who select the finalists for the annual Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction. There are eleven others. I don’t know if all eleven have EVER agreed with me; I’m sure that it’s quite rare.

  • Rob Fisher

    WHS: so I am still wrong. Of course I am! 😀

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    That’s very true. I have often thought that the decision taken in April 2016 by the editor of the Guardian, Katharine Viner, to limit reader comments, made it slightly more likely that Brexit would happen – and with a vote that close, perhaps that slight change was decisive.

    The unfiltered comments by Guardian readers provided feedback to the Guardian writers, and to the chattering classes whose opinions the Guardian writers played a large role in forming. They could see which lines of propaganda (using it here in a neutral sense) were working, and which were not. If even the mainly left wing Guardian readership took against the line taken by an article, that was a good sign that it would play even worse among the general population. Viner voluntarily limited her own side from seeing how their advocacy was going down.

    Similar things have happened with articles on the various controversies to do with transgender issues. Almost no Guardian articles on these topics have allowed comments over the last few years. If they had, they might have got an inkling how unpopular trans women competing in female sports actually was.

    That said, it is always more congenial to think about times when one’s political opponents made a certain mistake than about times when one’s own side have made the same mistake. As the previous post says, a majority of people believe lockdowns were right and necessary.

  • druid144

    A libertarian. Someone who has managed to read all the way through “Atlas Shrugged” right to the end.

  • JohnK

    I did not think that Putin sent a body double to Mariupol, but I did rather doubt that Putin had actually gone to Mariupol (or what is left of it).

    His “visit” took place at night, and he visited a new block of flats, where he was presented with some lumpenproles fulsomely thanking the great leader for having rebuilt a few crummy flats to replace the ones he destroyed.

    I do not think Putin actually visited any landmarks in Mariupol, for the good reason that they no longer exist. So he could have been visiting any featureless snow bound Russian town. Why do we think he risked his extremely important life by actually going to a war zone? Stalin never did.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I do like Vexler but I can’t work out if his unorthodox opinions are well-thought through or vacuous. I hope it’s the former.

  • Rob Fisher

    Agreed, Patrick. He seems to make sense, but it’s so far from anything I really know about that I find it hard to judge. That Russian Propaganda video was *so* slickly edited and charismatic that at first I was quite suspicious. His chat channel, and later videos have not been quite so polished (I believe he has health issues) so it’s quite clear now that he is sincere. But still, I haven’t figured him out yet.

    I would like to have asked Brian what he thought. In fact Brian probably would have got him to do a Friday.

  • Kirk

    Easy way to gauge if it was Putin: How close does he get to people?

    You see him meeting in set-piece photo ops in the palace, and the military leaders are at the other end of a long table away from him. You see him in church, he’s alone and nobody is within 50 meters.

    You see him in Mariupol, supposedly? He’s glad-handing all comers, all around in close to him? WTF?

    I don’t know what the reality is with this, but I find the two different Putins rather hard to reconcile.

  • Paul Marks

    There is also another problem Rob.

    The people who agree with you privately, but disagree with you publicly.

    Take the example of the Covid injections – if one watched the British Parliament then only two Members seem to think the injections might be dangerous, Sir Christopher Chope and Andrew Bridgen. Everyone else thinks these two men are wrong?

    No they do not – many (perhaps most) Conservative M.P.s AGREE with these two men in private – but they say the opposite in public (or say nothing).

    When I had my little problem with Central Office how many Conservatives sent me private messages of support? Many did – and I am thankful for that. But how many supported me in public? None at all – not against Central Office (that might have brought trouble to their own door).

    Take a local council that votes for CO2 is evil, or that the Frankfurt School of Marxism DEI agenda is wonderful – many (perhaps most) of the councillors, in various places, who vote for such things do NOT actually believe them (and will say so – in private conversation, but not in public). People will not dissent in public – because that brings trouble (terrible danger) to their own door. “Make a speech saying….” – they already know the things that one could put in that speech, they-already-know.

    It is just the world we live in, and it is one of the reasons I will not be sad to leave this world.

  • Paul Marks

    As for Mr Putin – of course he went to Mariupol, he most likely still thinks they love him in a city he smashed up.

    It was obvious that Mr Putin would not listen to other people long before the invasion of Ukraine (when he assumed that most Ukrainians would welcome his forces as liberators – he really believed that), it was clear from the road to Vladivostok.

    These is no case for a road all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok – the population density on the way is all wrong for a road (Russia is BIG – not many people per square mile) many days of driving with no where to stay (think about it – are you supposed to camp out in the middle of Siberia, or are you supposed to drive for days in between towns), Moscow to Vladivostok is a trip one makes by air or by rail (the Trans Siberian Railway) – not by road.

    And the LAND is often not suitable for a road – as has become obvious in the few years since the road was built, the ups-and-downs that have emerged in the road (due to the nature of the land) would be funny if they were not so dangerous.

    Notice I typed “in the few years since the road was built” – yes it was built, Mr Putin just ignored everyone, metaphorically (or perhaps literally) stamped his foot, and got his road from Moscow to Vladivostok.

    “But he is not Woke!” – I agree Mr Putin is not a Frankfurt School “Diversity” Marxist, even when he was taught Marxism (many years ago now) it was Classical Marxism (Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and so on) not Herbert Marcuse and co – but Mr Putin not being “Woke” will not help you if you are fighting the Ukrainians (for no good reason) or are freezing to death, many miles from any settlement, because you tried to drive all the way to Vladivostok.

    By the way petrol stations (what Americans call gas stations) – how many places selling fuel (and so on) do you think are on long (very long) stretches of that road?

  • Paul Marks

    By the way – on the oft “drunk and depressed” line about Russians.

    A Russian needs to be drunk in order to be depressed – or to be drinking at all to be depressed.

    It is like the videos “the Russian was so stupid he did not see the explosive device that was openly in the road” – of course the Russian knew it was there, which is why he drove straight into it.

    A very realistic view of the world and of life.

    But beware of insulting such people too much – if you insult people enough they will get annoyed, so annoyed they will forget to be depressed. And then they will kill you – and go back to thinking about suicide at some other time.

    Insults are not only rude – they are also a tactical mistake (particularly when dealing with Russians).

    As even Alfred Rosenberg, a leading Nazi – later hanged at Nuremberg, pointed out during (yes during) the Second World War – the German policy of directing insults (“subhuman” and so on) at Russians was a mistake, a very serious mistake.

  • Kirk

    I dunno… The Russians themselves seem to view their own as subhuman, based on how enthusiastically they go about killing each other and putting each other into horrible prisons they run for themselves.

    If you look at the span of Russian history in the 20th Century, they’re pretty much their own worst enemies. How much difference, do you suppose, there actually was between what they got up to themselves, and what the Nazis inflicted? Is it better to have an outsider come in and starve you to death, or is it a more congenial thing to die at the hands of your fellow citizens?

    Before I start respecting Russians and Russian lives, I’d like to see some evidence that they respect them, themselves.

    Not a lot of that out there. Hell, the crap that they got up to on their own, without outside help? If I’d seen that, I’d probably want to believe they weren’t fully human, either.

    I used to know a German who’d been drafted in ’38, and who somehow managed to survive the war with a lot of Eastern Front combat time. He was a Catholic dissenter against the Nazis, so he never got promoted past private, so he was down at the dirty end of the stick for all of it. His descriptions of the way the Soviets drove the troops forward at his unit was chilling. He still had nightmares about how many men he’d mowed down with his machinegun, and how they’d been driven out in front of him, with their own people shooting at them from behind if they faltered.

    To a degree, in order to maintain sanity, they had to dehumanize them. Eastern Front WWII was a totally insane place and time…

  • Mark

    Going off on a slight tangent, there is an example as we type involving people not generally noted for their rampant abuse of each other.

    This Dutch farm business: an unelected and isolated political clique has just ordered one of its satrapies to, in effect, salt it’s own fields.

    And it has ordered this on the basis of a pseudo scientific, pseudo intellectual, pseudo political ideological, ends justify the means dogma that would make Mao blush.

    These people have to sincerely believe in what they are doing, and one of those beliefs is that the plebs just need to see it in action to fully appreciate the wisdom of their betters after which they will come round (ditto milk floats, ULEZ,15 minute gulags etc etc).

    They have spent so long inside their bubbles that they have forgotten (if ever they actually knew) that people are, well, people and not just bovine livestock.

    Given how much farmland toytown Austria-Hungary has, and how much of it is used to basically farm subsidies producing for local political reasons, one wonders why it has chosen to target what is among the most efficiently farmed land on earth.

    As for Vlad I do find his channel and insights fascinating but there is something that nags.

    He did a very interesting one recently on one of Peter Zeihan’s views of russia. The latter does seem to just take data – economic, demographic etc – and just extrapolate it to seemingly logical conclusions, perhaps in the process stretching too far by leaving out the potentials for change or reaction among the subjects themselves.

    I do get a feeling that Vlad does something similar with his intellectual and “feeling” based analysis perhaps stretching (I don’t think extrapolating is the correct word in this context) this too far in a related sort of way.

    Is the whole Ukraine disaster just a “systemic failure” of a system of buck passing, arse covering, me first, boss plus 10%, fuck the poor corruption?

    I’m starting to get the feeling that’s actually all it is.

  • Kirk


    Russia has had systemic problems for a long, long time. There was a moment there, just after WWII, where they seemed like they were getting their act together, but then that didn’t quite eventuate, did it?

    Since the end of Communism, which basically collapsed under the weight of all of their internal contradictions and some really bad decision-making, the Russian leadership hasn’t done a damn thing to really address the problems of Russia and Russian citizens. How many Russian Federation citizens still live under conditions of privation, again? Why, exactly, do you think so many Russian soldiers were stealing washing machines in Ukraine…? Is that the behavior of a modern military? How bad are the underlying conditions in Russia that soldiers in combat are looking at washing machines and thinking “Gee, I need one of these for Mom…”? What does that tell you about living conditions in Russia?

    The oligarchs looted Russia. They looted the money from the resources they sold; the industrial plant was allowed to fall apart; agriculture got a bit of a boost, but overall? Russia is economically a lot worse off than it was during Soviet times. They’re a resource-extraction economy; what do they export? What are they forced to import?

    Their demographics have imploded, and are only going to get worse. How much of Russian dysfunction on all levels stems from the damage they did themselves under Stalin and from WWII? Most Russians live horribly austere lives, ones where they literally can’t afford to have kids. How does that work out, over the long haul, in the big picture? If the Russians had followed the curve that other nations did after 1900, the territories they have now should have a population of around 300 million people. What do they have? Less than half that; 144 million or so.

    Fundamentally, Russian weakness is due to their leadership looting the country and failing to take care of their people. That’s going to redound upon them in the next few generations, and it may result in the country reducing itself to the periphery of Moscow.

    It’s all self-inflicted, as well. Nobody put the gun to their head; they chose Communism, Lenin, Stalin, and all the rest that has flowed from those decisions.

    If you look at all the various videos made by Putin’s victim-soldiers, pathetically certain that if only Putin knew what had been done to them, he’d intervene and fix it. Reality? This is just like the typical Russian touching faith in the “Little Father” Tsar. Which only went so far; when they lost faith in him, the Reds and Whites turned Russia into a charnel house. I suspect that the end game is going to look a lot like the Russian Civil War, and Putin will be fortunate not to wind up executed next to his loved ones the way Nicholas II died. More than likely, he’s going to go out the way Khadafy did.