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Headlines Notwithstanding, Support for Drones Drops Slightly

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A new survey just released by the Pew Research Center (www.pewresearch.org) found that respondents have become much more likely to voice their disapproval over the U.S. drone assassination program. In a phone survey conducted from May 12-18, 2015, Pew found that 35 of every 100 respondents said they disapproved “of the United States conducting [drone strikes] to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” The complete report of Pew’s methodology indicates that the last time they asked this particular question was from February 7-10, 2013. In that survey, only 26 of every 100 respondents disapproved, so in the span of two years the disapproval rate shot up by 9 points, constituting a 34% increase.

Approval for the drone program went up, too, though not as dramatically. Between 2013 and 2015, responses of approval increased from 56 to 58 per 100, a change which is actually smaller than the survey’s stated margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

The remaining portion of respondents who said they didn’t know or who refused to answer decreased by 11 percentage points between 2013 and 2015, and people who publicly advocate for an end to the drone assassination program have won more of them over to their side: apparently by a factor of 4 and a half.

Yet much of the media that have reported on this survey would have you believe that there has come to be a solid bulwark of support for the drone program. A sampling of recent headlines:

Pew Research Center: “Public Continues to Back U.S. Drone Attacks”
Politico: “Poll: Americans overwhelmingly support drone strikes”
The Hill: “Majority of Americans support US drone strikes, survey says”
Times of India: “Majority of Americans support drone strikes in Pakistan: Survey”
Al-Jazeera: “Poll finds strong support for drone strikes among Americans”
AFP: “Nearly 60 per cent of Americans back drone strikes overseas: Pew survey”
The Nation: “Americans support drone strikes: poll”

While some of the headlines are technically true, the analyses inside the stories paint a different picture than reality, as I have not seen any discussion about trends or any comparisons of the 2015 survey to earlier ones.

The most pernicious headline, perhaps, comes from Pew itself. The Pew writers presumably read their own survey reports, yet they claim a continuity of public backing which is not demonstrated by the data. Suppose a gambler wins 20 dollars but loses 90; is that breaking even?

Regardless of what media will or will not say, there is a hot story here: drone opponents are making progress in convincing the public that drone strikes are not a wise or moral course of action for the United States to pursue. We might be approaching a breakthrough moment if we keep up our momentum.