How YouGov attempted to influence Kurdish independence vote

For the public to have faith in pollsters, pollsters need to be robustly regulated.
Sunday 28/10/2018

In scandalous revelations, the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, exposed how a British pollster attempted to influence the outcome of a democratic vote in another sovereign country — Iraq.

YouGov, which was extensively involved in polling public opinion for major political events such as Brexit, assigned staff members to specifically promote a “Yes” vote on the question of Kurdish secessionism from the rest of Iraq, the report said. These actions represent a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty by a foreign entity and shatter the perception that pollsters are unbiased and non-partisan participants in the expression of the public’s will.

Stefan Kaszubowski, global head of custom research at YouGov, told the Telegraph: “We have been working across the Middle East — including Iraq — since 2005, always with the same high level of accuracy and objectivity in polling and consultancy as we do in many other countries throughout the world. As is the case for all polling companies in all markets, we cannot talk publicly about client work.”

Despite the independence bid’s failure, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in the direction YouGov was pushing, with a near 90% vote in favour of independence during the September 2017 referendum.

Whistle-blowers who leaked information to the Telegraph said YouGov secretly collected information on voters and crafted propaganda material to spread across social media to encourage them to opt to secede from Iraq. Material included telling voters that the referendum would give the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk “the opportunity to choose between being a small part of a failed country, or a great city in a new and secure [Kurdish] homeland,” the newspaper’s report alleged.

To what extent people were affected by YouGov’s propaganda efforts is unknown. Considering the extremely high percentage of voters who went for independence, they are unlikely to have been the deciding factor against the almost non-existent unionist campaign.

However, that does not make the Telegraph’s revelations any less concerning for people of the region, who have undergone a territorial dismemberment at the hands of Western forces following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war. Middle Eastern people will be highly sensitive to such meddling.

YouGov was co-founded in 2000 by Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi, a serving Conservative member of parliament for Stratford-on-Avon and a minister in the current Tory government. Zahawi is an Iraqi Kurd born in Baghdad in 1967. His family migrated to the United Kingdom in 1976.

In 1991, he was involved in campaigning for Iraqi Kurdish rights after the Gulf War and the expulsion of Iraq from occupied Kuwait. Crucially, Zahawi was supportive of the US-led invasion of Iraq, although this predated his career as a lawmaker.

Since the invasion, Zahawi has been a veritable cheerleader for Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous area governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He has attended many KRG-hosted events, lauded its relative stability and peace compared to the rest of Iraq and pushed for further armaments to be sent to the peshmerga, the KRG’s cross-partisan militant force.

It is thus easy to see how Zahawi turned his back on his country and city of birth to facilitate its division from within the very inner workings of a former colonial power who robbed Iraq of its resources.

Considering these revelations, it would not be unusual to ask: Can we trust data produced by pollsters? Are they truly independent or are they motivated to provide engineered “facts” to push other agendas?

While Zahawi is no longer CEO of YouGov, he is a shareholder and his private consultancy, Zahawi & Zahawi Ltd, lists YouGov among its clientele. He also worked as a strategist for Gulf Keystone Petroleum, an oil and gas company that focuses on KRG-controlled areas, earning him nearly $39,000 a month. The company would have seen itself profit handsomely had independence been achieved.

For the public to have faith in pollsters, pollsters need to be robustly regulated. Until politicised data have been removed from the public discourse, there is a very real threat of wealthy businessmen influencing opinion by making people believe their peers are voting in ways they may not necessarily even be considering. Such an outcome would be catastrophic for democracy.