Stand up for facts and support PolitiFact.

Now is your chance to go on the record as supporting trusted, factual information by joining PolitiFact’s Truth Squad. Contributions or gifts to PolitiFact, which is part of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Poynter Institute, are tax deductible.

More Info

I would like to contribute

By Sarah Hauer June 15, 2015

Mark Pocan says 25 percent of Americans have changed email, phone habits due to surveillance issues

When former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about federal data collection in 2013, he drew attention to the extent the federal government is gathering information about U.S. citizens.

Much of that data collection grew out of the Patriot Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush shortly after the 9/11 attacks, allowing government to monitor communication activity to prevent further acts of terrorism.

The act set many provisions to expire in 2005 but the sunset was renewed and extended to June 1, 2015. The following day, a new act passed to again extend surveillance, but with some limitations placed on phone data collection.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan would have gone further. He voted against the extension and in March 2015 introduced a measure that would repeal the Patriot Act.

Pocan tried to illustrate the effect of government surveillance on everyday Americans during an appearance on Devil's Advocates radio in Madison. In the May 20, 2015 interview, he said:

"The Pew Foundation did a poll and what's interesting and I think a chilling effect -- 25 percent of people in the country have said they changed their email and phone habits because of this kind of collection."  

Is Pocan right?

Polling results

When asked for backup, Pocan's people directed us to the survey conducted by the Pew Research Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, about technology use post-Snowden.  

The survey asked American adults for their thoughts on government surveillance programs and whether they have changed their communication technology habits since learning details about the surveillance.

Pocan claimed the poll showed 25 percent of Americans changed their email and phone habits because of the data collection allowed by the Patriot Act.

But that’s not exactly what was found by the survey. And Pocan overstated the breadth of the changes.

The survey asked if respondents had heard of government surveillance programs. Then, the poll offered readers a list of technologies, such as email and cell phones, and asked how --  if at all -- their use of the technologies had changed.

The percentages below represent how many said they had changed their use of an individual technology "a great deal" or "somewhat."


Email accounts

18 percent

Search engines

17 percent

Social media sites

15 percent

Cell phones

15 percent

Mobile apps

13 percent

Featured Fact-check

Text messages

13 percent

Landline phones

9 percent

At least one of the above

25 percent


So, the 25 percent is not for any single category, or even from combining cell phones and email. Rather, it comes from tallying how many people listed at least one of the examples.

Behind the numbers

That is the number Pocan cited, but in doing so he missed some important nuances.

First, the question about changing technology habits wasn't asked of everyone in the sample.

An earlier question asked how much respondents had heard about government collecting information about  "telephone calls, emails and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity." The 87 percent of respondents who said they had heard "a little" or "a lot" were then asked about changing technology habits.  

So that means, in the end, 22 percent -- not 25 percent -- of all of those surveyed said they had made such a change.

Pocan also said the 25 percent of people "changed their email and phone habits." But, as noted, the list had seven categories and did not pair any two of them together.

Pocan also suggested a cause-and-effect relationship between government surveillance programs and  people changing their technology habits.

But the poll only asked whether respondents had changed their technology use "since learning about U.S. phone and Internet monitoring."

For instance, someone may have dropped their landline phone service to save money, but did so some time after they heard of government surveillance.

Research methodology

Beyond Pocan's fumbling with the survey data, some aspects of how the survey was done could have affected the results.

Pew used GfK Group’s national KnowledgePanel survey of 475 adults conducted between November 2014 and January 2015 for the analysis.

KnowledgePanel is a national research sample, weighted to represent the country's demographics. Respondents were invited to participate in a series of three surveys in the course of a year, all of which would be about current events technology issues.

Participants were told the survey questions would be about technology, which could draw people more interested in technology than the general public.

And since the questions about technology use came in the third survey, the previous surveys could have sensitized respondents to pay more attention to technology issues and increase their concern.

Those who are more interested and concerned about technology would be more likely to stick around, said Robert Griffin, professor at Marquette University’s Center for Mass Media Research.

One in 5 dropped out between the first and third surveys. GfK did try to account for participants who drop out of the survey by adding in new participants and weighting their responses.

Overall, experts said the methodology followed industry standards and wouldn’t have had a great affect on the results.

Our rating

Pocan said 25 percent of Americans changed their phone and email habits in response to federal data collection.

He pointed to a Pew Research study as evidence, which our experts said checked out, but he misrepresented and overstated the statistic on the radio show.  

For a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, our rating is Half True.

Our Sources

Phone conversation with Mary Madden, senior researcher, Pew Research Center, June 1, 2015.  

Phone conversation with Dave Parcell, vice president, GfK Custom Research, June 9.

Email exchange with Alex Nguyen, communications director, Office of Congressman Mark Pocan.

Email exchange with Robert Griffin, professor, Center for Mass Media Research, Marquette University.

Email exchange with David Wegge, executive director, Strategic Research Institute, St. Norbert College.  

Pew Research Center, Americans' Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden, March 16, 2015.  

Pew Research Center, Topline Questionnaire, March 16, 2015.  

Devil's Advocate Radio, interview with Congressman Mike Pocan, May 20, 2015.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Sarah Hauer

Mark Pocan says 25 percent of Americans have changed email, phone habits due to surveillance issues

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up