Tell me what you think …

Opinion polls as a means of manipulation?

by Eliane Perret and Urs Graf

The poll conducted by the opinion research institute Sotomo (from 13 to 16 February 2023)1 on Switzerland’s current policy in view of the war in Ukraine is revealing in several respects. In an online survey, voters from German- and French-speaking Switzerland had the opportunity to express a graded assessment of Switzerland’s neutrality and its current Ukraine policy by replying to 17 questions. The 16,249 responses were evaluated according to various criteria and are considered representative of the opinions of the Swiss population. The answers were evaluated: by gender (getting more and more complicated ...), residing on this or the other side of the so-called “Röstigraben” (the term used to refer to the cultural boundary between German-speaking and French-speaking parts of Switzerland, Translator’s note), by party affiliation, school-leaving qualification (here confused with “education”) and by age groups. Since the question of Switzerland’s position on war is always – and today more than ever – about the future shaping of our country, the results by age group of the various generations will be highlighted below. The survey divides these into the three groups: 18–35, 36–55 and over 55.

Opinion polls are commissioned …

This second opinion survey by Sotomo was again commissioned by the media group Ringier2, which publishes, for example, the tabloid “Blick” and the business newspaper Cash and holds a share in various radio stations.
  Opinion polls can also be used to check where there is a “need for action” because people are not yet “thinking right”. Accordingly, reporting can be steered in an opinion-forming way.

… and have a goal

Today, opinion polls are among the propaganda instruments used to manage and control opinions on political decisions. They are often carried out in decision-making phases before votes, in the knowledge that many people are inclined to go along with the majority, as this “knows best”. This is also the case with this poll, which engages in the emotionally very heated mood about the war in Ukraine. While some questions revolve around the core of war events, others clearly pursue the cementing of the narrative of an “unmotivated war of aggression by Russia”, of a war that started without any previous history a year ago, and of a Europe not connected to any international interests, that has to protect itself against the blatant power claims of Russia and its “autocratic” president. For example, there are questions like “What is your assessment: Will Vladimir Putin still be Russian president in a year’s time?” or “Should Vladimir Putin be brought before an international war crimes tribunal?”; but there are no similar questions regarding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or US President Joe Biden (or former American presidents), nor other politicians involved in the war and hailing from the faithless guarantor powers of the Minsk agreements, namely Germany and France along with England. Moreover, at the same time, a pre-judgement is being fed into the public debate, which is a procedure reminiscent of similar processes in the wars in Iraq and Libya.
  In addition to these questions directly concerning war events, others are aimed at the unconstitutional softening of neutrality, and it is examined to what extent the respondents would be prepared to break Swiss law (without addressing the breach of law in the question itself): “There is currently a discussion about whether confiscated assets of Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin should be confiscated and made available to Ukraine for reconstruction. Do you welcome such a measure?”
  However, some questions in the opinion poll are revealing as well as thought-provoking.

Trust in the press

“How do you feel about general reporting in the Swiss media?” was the first question that respondents could answer with “Too uncritical of Russia”, “Too uncritical of Ukraine or “Objective and informative”. While almost half of the middle-aged and older generation judged the reporting to be clearly “objective and informative”, only 38 % of the younger generation thought so, and 54 % of them even felt that the media were too uncritical of Ukraine.
  Conclusion: It seems that trust in the reporting of Swiss media has been shaken among the younger generation. The reason for this could be that many of them now obtain their information from other sources than the mainstream and corporate media – e.g. via digital channels or alternative press products – and are thus able to form their opinions on the basis of a greater variety of assessments of the current situation, and so distrust the mainstream media’s narrative.

Neutrality and sanctions

In response to the question “In reaction to the war in Ukraine, the EU has imposed sanctions against Russia. Switzerland has in principle adopted these sanctions. Has this violated the principle of Swiss neutrality?”, respondents were asked to tick “Yes”, “Rather Yes”, “Rather No” or “No”.
  While among the younger generation the crosses for “No” (39 %) only slightly outweighed those for “Yes” (35 %), the middle generation (51 %) and the older generation (59 %) agreed that the sanctions adopted by the EU did not violate Swiss neutrality.
  Conclusion: Obviously, the “spin” fed into the mainstream press of how we should not be allowed to stand aside or the fear of economic blackmail was particularly opinion-forming for the older generation, while younger people were unsure of what to think.

Swiss neutrality

When asked the questions “Russia has now been at war with Ukraine for a year. How should Switzerland behave in this situation?”, almost half (49 %) of the younger respondents were sure that Switzerland should behave more neutrally, while 42 % of the middle-aged group and 49 % of the oldest respondents were in favour of stronger support for Ukraine. Only a small group wanted to continue the current course.
  Conclusion: It is astonishing and also gratifying that the younger generation obviously sees Switzerland’s neutrality as a value worth preserving, while the older respondents do not see support for Ukraine as a violation of neutrality.

Fight for democracy and against autocracy?

For the question “What is your basic assessment of the Russian-Ukrainian war?”, the answer variant that it might “also be described as a fight for democracy against autocracy” did receive 52 % approval among younger respondents, but this number was lower than that of the middle (64 %) and older groups (72 %).
  Conclusion: In these questions, the spin, which has been fed into reporting for years, of the wars waged by the USA being a “fight for democracy” was obviously effective. It was used again and again by the mainstream media as a justifying argument for the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Their consequences are actually there today for all to see.

Supplying weapons

The next three questions dealt with the supply of weapons by Switzerland to war zones:
  “Should Switzerland sell its stored Leopard 2 tanks to Germany and Poland so that they could supply Ukraine with their own tanks in a ring deal?”
  “The Security Committee of the National Council wants a two-year exemption from the War Material Act for Ukraine (Lex Ukraine). This would allow countries such as Germany or Poland to immediately supply Swiss-made weapons and ammunition to Ukraine for defence against Russia. Are you in favour of this?”
  “The Security Committee of the Council of States wants to permanently amend the War Material Act. This is to allow countries with standards similar to those of Switzerland to continue supplying weapons and ammunition made in Switzerland. The material must have been purchased more than five years ago, and it may only be passed on for self-defence to countries that respect human rights. Are you in favour?”
  For the younger generation, it was clear in all three questions, with 53 %, 53 % and 44 % respectively, that Switzerland must abide by its War Material Act (WMA) and must not supply war material to war zones or countries at war. Here, too, there was a clear distinction to the opinions of the other two age groups, who could even imagine a softening of previous laws.
  Conclusion: It is astonishing that younger people seem to be more adamant that Switzerland should not export war material and take the recently adopted tightening of the relevant law more seriously than the parties setting the tone at the time.

Switzerland joining NATO

The group of 18–35 year-olds also has a clear opinion on Switzerland’s cooperating closer with NATO or even joining it. Their answers to the questions “Are you for or against closer cooperation between Switzerland and the NATO defence alliance?” and “Are you for or against Switzerland joining NATO?” were clear. With 41 % of nays, they were against closer cooperation, with 61 % against joining. The other two age groups were again on shaky ground, with only 29 % and 22 % nays against closer cooperation with NATO and only 47 % and 40 % against joining.
  Conclusion: The younger generation seems to be much less in favour of cooperation with NATO than the older respondents and certainly not of accession. It is astonishing that the other two age groups again have little opposition to mainstream opinion to offer.

Neutrality initiative yes or no?

As already in the first survey, respondents were asked for their opinion on the neutrality initiative (at that time described as an initiative by “SVP – Swiss People’s Party – mastermind Christoph Blocher” and so placed in a specific political framework): “The SVP wants to use a popular initiative to enshrine Swiss neutrality in the constitution: as permanent, armed and comprehensive. If a vote were held on this initiative right now, how would you vote?” Here, too, the question manipulatively and factually incorrectly assigns the initiative to a political party that has for many years been discredited in a campaign and apostrophised as being very right-wing. The respondents had the option to answer “Yes”, “Rather Yes”, “Don’t know”, “Rather No” or “No” – and it was astonishing that again, it was the younger generation of whom 41 % would today vote for and 28 % against the initiative, whereas the middle generation would vote with 31 % in favour and 39 % against and the older generation would vote with 29 % ayes and 46 % nays.
  Conclusion: The generation following us can obviously not count on a reliable support by their older fellow citizens on this issue. What is actually wrong here? We can only speculate.

It makes you think …

It can be assumed that the PR strategies devised in the last few months deliberately appealed to an emotional “Cold War” mood among the two groups of older respondents. People are against Russia because they equate it with the Soviet Union, and they also uncritically admire the “land of unlimited possibilities” on the other side of the ocean. Information is probably obtained with trust in the honesty of our local media and thus, by necessity, within a bubble of opinion that has determined culture for decades, without a view of the rest of the world.

… but it is gratifying

Yes, the Sotomo opinion poll shows a pleasing trend among our young people. They apparently use different sources to form their opinions and are not so quick to settle on one point of view. Switzerland as a neutral country is a matter of concern to them, and they see no need to be drawn into the service of belligerent powers.  •

1 Sotomo. Die Schweiz und der Ukrainekrieg: Ein Jahr Krieg(Switzerland and the Ukraine War: One Year of War.);
The first survey was conducted in April 2022.

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