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Gallup's Latest Russia Poll - Better Stick to the Numbers and Leave the Analysis to Others

Gallup's Russia statistics are interesting, but their 'analytical' conclusions are problematic

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

"Americans See Russia Less Negatively, as Less of a Threat" is the title of a Gallup report released on February 18, 2016. On the surface the supporting statistics might give the impression that Americans are ready to see a relaxation of tensions between the US and Russia.

But Gallup points out that although Russia's image is "slightly less negative," it is still near the bottom of previously recorded levels. That's true, as can be verified by Gallup's archived statistics. But Gallup's analysis of the factors involved in creating Russia's low image may not add up. The report says:

"After a period of several years that Putin has expressed criticism of the US, harbored alleged cyber-terrorist Edward Snowden, restricted gay rights in his country, and annexed Crimea, Americans do not have the same positive feelings toward Russia than in the halcyon period following the end of the Cold War."  

That attributes the blame for Russia's bad reputation entirely on actions taken by Russia itself. That's where the problem comes in with Gallup's analysis. Think about this: You've got Russia's international behavior on one hand, and on the other you have the attitudes of Americans toward Russia on the other. What's missing from this picture? It's what exists in between the Russian actions and the American perceptions. What is that? It's a combo of the American politicians and media outlets.

Few Americans have formed their attitudes toward Russia based on first hand experiences. Instead they are exposed to the assertions of political leaders and the content of media reports. That's the problem, according to my hypothesis.

In the end, what Americans are hearing is a characterization of Russia shaped by the biases and self-interests of those middlemen. And that characterization may not have a factual basis. Indeed, there are a lot of provable examples of unscrupulous fabrications.
Gallup's own figures actually suggest that there may be something to this hypothesis. Its report says, "Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 gave Russia the highest favorable rating across all age groups at 43 percent."
What's the explanation for that? Gallup suggests:

"This may be attributable to most of this age group not living through the Cold War and not viewing Russia as the enemy to the U.S. that other generations experienced."

I suppose that could have some relevance. But here's what else the figures indicate: the 18 to 34 year old demographic may be significantly less exposed to the ongoing malicious characterizations offered by American politicians and media. That just might be because members of this age demographic get their news in a way that is remarkably different from their parents' and grandparents' practices.

The American Press Institute sheds some light on this. In March 2014 it published a report titled "Social and Demographic Differences in News Habits and Attitudes." First of all it points out that media consumers between the ages of 18 and 29 don't follow news about Russia as much as older people. Fifty nine percent of them report following foreign and international news. For those over 60, however, that figure is 79 percent. That means the younger demographic is significantly less exposed to the plethora of biased news reports that emphasize Russia's negative points.

The API report also indicates that "younger adults are more likely to find news through Web-based media." That means their news horizons are potentially broader.

"Young adults are significantly more likely than older adults to say they used their cell phone to get news in the last week," the report reveals. It's 76 percent for the young demographic, just 37 percent for those over 60. And for social media as a means for discovering news? The young and old divide is great, 71 percent vs. 21 percent, according to API.

For a number of years I've followed the ups and downs of American attitudes toward Russia. In 2009 I plotted the degree of positive attitudes against reported world events. You can see a copy of that graph here.

The graph shows a clearly-apparent correlation between perceptions and the news content of the moment. That seems to me a more persuasive explanation than whether or not one is old enough to remember the Cold War.

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