Reports that a major British pollster might have influenced a referendum in Iraq should serve as a warning for democracies around the world both young, and old.

In scandalous revelations unveiled earlier this week, the Daily Telegraph published a report exposing how a British pollster attempted to influence the outcome of a democratic vote in another sovereign country. 

YouGov, who was extensively involved in polling public opinion for major political events such as Brexit, assigned staff to specifically promote a Yes vote on the question of Kurdish secessionism from the rest of Iraq. 

These actions not only represent a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty by a foreign entity, but also shatter the perception that pollsters are unbiased and non-partisan participants in the expression of the public’s will.

Despite its ultimate failure, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in the direction YouGov was pushing, with a near 90 percent vote in favour of independence during the September 2017 referendum. 

According to whistleblowers who leaked to the Telegraph, YouGov secretly collected information on voters and crafted propaganda material to spread across social media to encourage voters 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 Zahawi connection

To what extent people were affected by YouGov’s propaganda efforts is unknown, though considering the extremely high percentage of voters who decided to go for independence, it is highly unlikely to have been the deciding factor against the almost non-existent unionist campaign. 

However, that does not make these revelations any less concerning for people of the region, who have already undergone a territorial dismemberment at the hands of Western forces following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. 

People in the Middle East will be highly sensitive to such meddling.

Perhaps most concerning is how YouGov is intrinsically connected to the halls of power of British politics, arguably ground zero for the decision to carve up the Ottoman Empire into the modern Middle East we see today.

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 originally an Iraqi Kurd born in Baghdad in 1967 before his family migrated to the United Kingdom in 1976. In 1991, he was involved in campaigning for Iraqi Kurdish rights in the aftermath of the Gulf War and the expulsion of Iraq from occupied Kuwait. 

More crucially, Zahawi was supportive of the US-led invasion of Iraq, although this predated his career as lawmaker.

Writing for the Conservative Home website in 2015, Zahawi describes how in 2003 he was asked by the Iraqi government to conduct polling work after the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein. 

Considering the revelations this week and his clear interest in making the “new” Iraq seem considerably better than the nightmare regime that preceded it, god only knows what results were skewed, doctored or engineered to give impressions that served a political agenda rather than impartial fact.

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 there, 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.

Can we trust polls?

In light of these revelations, it would not be unusual to ask a simple question – can we trust data produced by pollsters? Are they truly independent? Or are they motivated to provide engineered “facts” to push their own agenda?

While Zahawi is no longer CEO of YouGov, he is still a shareholder and his private consultancy, Zahawi & Zahawi Ltd, lists YouGov amongst 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 approximately $40,000 per month. This company would have seen itself profit handsomely had independence been achieved.

For the public to have faith in pollsters, they need to be robustly regulated. 

Like the UK’s phone hacking scandal raised questions about journalism going too far, reports that a major British pollster attempted to undermine a foreign country’s sovereignty needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency in order to restore the public’s faith in the data they are being provided.

Until politicised data has been removed from the public discourse, we face a very real threat of wealthy businessmen influencing opinion by making people believe that their peers are voting one way they may not necessarily even be considering. 

While the Kurdish referendum was resolved through Baghdad’s use of military force, other crucial votes similar to Brexit could be unfairly swayed in the future by unscrupulous companies who have influential shareholders and officers who harbour agendas they want to see enacted. 

Such an outcome would be catastrophic for democracy.

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