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The real problem with the ‘Kiwimeter’

by Tze Ming Mok

The Human Rights Commission is wrong. It’s not racist for a survey to put up a statement that captures everything liberals and radicals hate about latent anti-Maori attitudes, and ask whether you agree or disagree with it.

It’s a perfectly reasonable way to measure how anti-Maori people are. I don’t know what the HRC expects here: for attitudinal survey questions to be so PC that they either allow people to hide how bigoted they are, or just not gather any information about people’s attitudes at all? I expect that they don’t expect anything in particular, as it’s not their job to conduct social research on people’s attitudes. But it would help if they understood what it is for.

People want research that can help society. But we can’t help society if we don’t know where the problems are. And we can’t see where the problems are unless we ask the hard questions about people’s sometimes shitty attitudes.

At the same time, the negative reactions I’ve seen to this survey within my own liberal bubble do highlight some real problems with how the ‘Kiwimeter’ has been executed by TVNZ. Essentially, it’s been carried out in a way that makes people suspect its motives, that makes people uncomfortable, and makes people think that there is a hidden agenda.

Surveyfail 1: The Kiwi-measuring contest

As I said, asking respondents whether or not they agree with offensive statements, is not inherently racist. It’s essentially asking people whether they have shitty, bigoted views, which is something really important to find out. The fact that the survey is called a ‘Kiwimeter’ though? Hmm, maybe a bit racist. Personally, I’m not comfortable with it, because the overwhelming suggestion is that it’s going to tell you how much of a ‘Kiwi’ you are, with the possibility that you will fail the Kiwi-ness test, and that you identify with the term ‘Kiwi’ anyway.

I’m not the only one that has been turned off by this; others have decided not to fill it out on these grounds. The name of the survey operates on an assumption that all New Zealanders have an uncomplicated response to this term as a national identity; which seems kind of an oversight for a survey about national identity. The people filling it are already more likely to be those who have opted in to a certain kind of national identity, so that undermines the whole enterprise… and sets the scene for all that follows.

Surveyfail 2: ‘What is this shit?’

From comments I’ve seen, people seemed very confused about what the survey was, and I have not fared much better myself.  A lot of people didn’t realise that there had been a large, scientific and more detailed survey conducted into social attitudes, that had generated the six ‘Kiwi archetypes’ to start with. The accompanying text intended to explain the online survey was brief, ambiguous and misleading.

You could not understand anything about the status of the data (am I the Kiwimeter survey? Is the other survey the Kiwimeter survey?) that you were about to deliver into TVNZ’s hot little hands, even if you read the FAQs and methodology section, which only nerds like me do. For people clicking through quickly, it seemed like their Buzzfeed-like answers themselves were forming the basis of something with about as much validity as a Herald online poll.

Surveyfail 3: ‘Oh, I see where this is going…’

Compounding all of this, was the lack of any warning or explainer about how to view or react to the questions. People saw statements that seemed personally offensive, leading and inflammatory - statements for many, cut to the very core of racial enmity and oppression in this country - and instead of thinking: “Aha, this is an attitude survey, I will click ‘strongly disagree’ and have a glass of water” they simply got really uncomfortable. One senior academic I know who specialises in national attitudes and identity research did not complete the survey for this reason. Guys, this is a baaaaad sign.

These three fails combined make it fully understandable why a lot of people might have thought this was some kind of racist survey.  And the way that the execution was fumbled like this makes me think that they almost deserve for people to think it’s a racist survey.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure it’s not a racist survey.

But I have questions.

The original large-scale survey of 10,000 people drawn from a properly representative sample (I still can’t tell whether this is also being referred to as the Kiwimeter) itself seems like it could be an invaluable research resource for academics and policymakers for years to come, since they keep touting it as the ‘largest ever’ (ah, but if you’re doing to get into dick-measuring, you’re going to have to go longitudinal, amirite NZAVS?). 

What are they doing with the microdata?  Is it going to be open access? What are TVNZ’s public responsibilities in the use, distribution and control of this information?  None, because it’s a commercial operation; or lots, because they are a state body? In which case, can I have it please?

As for the ‘Kiwimeter’ online data, which is forming the basis of a bunch of stories being pumped out now by TVNZ, the methodology section only describes how they carried out the first proper survey that generated the archetypes; it does not say whether they are doing any post-survey weighting with the online results in order to try to make it better than a Herald online poll.

I’m only assuming this is being done, otherwise, kill me now because otherwise the #nerdrage will destroy all before it. But even assuming this, there is a big big problem with the fact that the choice to select into and complete the online survey is not independent from attitudes about national identity. Because, as discussed above it’s called a fucking ‘Kiwimeter’.  So I don’t know why they don’t just publish the findings of the 10,000-strong scientific survey instead as it will be much more credible. 

My biggest worry though, is what TVNZ’s motives are in carrying out this kind of attitudinal research on national identity, and how responsible they are going to be with the findings. Are the academics doing the analysis worried about losing control of the results amid a ratings-driven frenzy?  Will the use of the findings and the data by TVNZ be driven by a need for enlightenment, or a need for controversy and profit? 

Can I tick all of the above?

Full disclosure: Tze Ming previously worked at the Human Rights Commission, and as a researcher at NatCen Social Research which conducts the British Social Attitudes Survey. Oh yeah, and blogged on Public Address.

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