Monday, March 17, 2008


Letter published in The New Paper, 17 Mar 2008, p26
Some furore in The New Paper over how netizens were only to keen to say that they would not donate money to a Chinese national suffering from leukemia simply because he wasn't Singaporean. The crux of the article was the discrepancy between Singaporeans' opinion on an online poll and in a face-to-face (F2F) poll.

In the online poll, 80% of respondents said they WOULDN'T donate. In the F2F one, 90% said they WOULD. This is a swing of opinion that is unfathomable. Psychologists say that this is a result of something they call social desirability - interviewees give answers they think the interviewer wants to hear, so as to be accepted by him/her. Even if this was true, this is virtually a 180-degree turnaround!

I don't think by any measure that netizens are more honest - on the contrary, I think the World Wide Web's anonymity has conceived a very vocal minority emboldened by a false sense of bravado to respond to all issues cynically, so as to gain the approval of their peers. It's apparently a popular thing to be anti-establishment, so we hear. Press these people in a F2F interview, and you'll hear a different story.

I conclude that in a poll of opinion, the medium is very important. While anonymity has been proven to be important to honesty in an interview, the rather flippant nature of the netizens' response suggests that online polls and forums aren't the way to go either. Netizens (I hate that word) can easily hide behind fictitious nicknames and avatars and post whatever they want, which is what has happened here. Are they more truthful? No.

I believe the answer lies somewhere in between - an anonymous phone interview perhaps? That's one for the researchers to think about.
Source: The New Paper, 14 Mar 2008, p10

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