The problem with numbers: Buyer beware!

Whom can we trust when it comes to gauging the extent of support for the recent social-justice protests?

August 1, 2011 22:25
Tel Aviv protest

Tel Aviv protest 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

On Sunday morning I awoke here in Ashdod eager to read about the protests that had taken place around the country on Saturday night. I stepped into my study, turned on my computer and Yediot Aharonot, in the form of online YNet news, popped up.

“Masses March For Social Change” announced that “tens of thousands of Israelis” had taken to the streets on Saturday night demanding “affordable housing and social justice.” The article further reported that 10,000 were marching toward the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, 10,000 more in Haifa, 1,500 in Ashdod, 3,000 in Beersheba, 1,000 in Kiryat Shmona, and 150 in Ashkelon.

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Near the end of the article was a comment that “police sources estimated that 150,000 were taking part in the protest nationwide.” I deduced that there had probably been about 125,000 in Tel Aviv. Feeling I had a fairly decent handle on the scale of what took place, I nevertheless decided to check elsewhere.

At Haaretz online I was greeted by these descriptions: “The largest event took place in Tel Aviv, with organizers saying 30,000 took part... In Haifa, thousands of people marched through the city, and in Jerusalem thousands marched from Horse Park to the house of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu... In Beersheba, over 1,000 protesters marched... Around 150 people gathered at Ashdod’s tent city... In Kiryat Shmona, 500 protesters marched in the city’s main road...

I tried to reconcile this numerical information with the YNet article, but it didn’t reconcile very well. Only 30,000 in Tel Aviv? Then I came downstairs, stumbled out the front door, grabbed my Jerusalem Post and was shocked to see the huge headline: “Hundreds of thousands in ‘social justice’ rallies.” Hundreds of thousands? Where were the hundreds of thousands? And how did YNet and Haaretz miss them? The writers of the article went on to say that “the organizers” had claimed “more than 100,000 had gathered” in Tel Aviv.

Did this mean that no one really checked, but just relied on what was obviously biased information? In any case, the Post reporters dissembled that however many had gathered in Tel Aviv, it was more than in last week’s rally, which was estimated at between 15,000 and 70,000. Fifteen thousand and seventy thousand? Who’s kidding whom here? A cursory check of other online sources had CNN quoting a Tel Aviv police estimate of “50,000 in Tel Aviv” and “tens of thousands of others took to the streets in nine other cities.” Arutz Sheva put the number at as high as 150,000 around the country, with 75,000 in Tel Aviv. Various columnists were even more cavalier. Yediot’s Nahum Barnea wrote: “Whether the crowds numbered 100,000 or 200,000, never have such numbers descended into the streets over social issues... Who would have believed that 150,000 Israelis would take the trouble to go out into the street in the name of social change?”

YOU’RE PROBABLY scratching your head at this point and saying who cares? So what if there were 100,000 more or less?

But numbers matter.

On my blogsite, I chronicled another distortion when the Sheikh Jarrah march wound through Jerusalem on July 15. After the march, the Post reported that 4,500 participated; the Palestine News Network counted 3,000; Yediot and Haaretz tallied 2,000; and UPI put the number at 1,500. Interestingly, the Ma’an Palestinian News Agency had the most comprehensive information: “Organizers put the numbers at 5,000, public radio said only 2,000 took part, and police said there were not even 500.”

Not even 500? If the larger number is correct, the reader or listener feels there was a substantial protest, and that a large number of people felt strongly enough about the goals of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement to participate. Fewer than 500 suggests that very few people supported the march. Why the organizers would greatly exaggerate the number of demonstrators is obvious, but what about the media’s distorted numbers? Again the answer is obvious; numbers sell. Large numbers help sell newspapers, online sites, and television news programs. More importantly, large numbers sell ideas.

All of which brings me back to the housing and social protest demonstrations.

What are we to believe? We know the demonstrations are the talk of the country, and almost everyone believes they are justified to some extent. But are they massively supported, to the extent that hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets? It appears not.

So what idea is the media selling?

ON SUNDAY, Agence France-Presse’s coverage was insightfully focused not on the protests at all, but on the media.

In “Israel media hails massive social protests,” the writers had this to say: “Israeli media on Sunday hailed huge protests against the high cost of living, and warned that the new movement posed a serious challenge to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. The country’s newspapers splashed their front pages with photographs of the estimated 100,000 people who turned out on Saturday night to demonstrate in favor of broad economic reform. And commentators welcomed the new ‘social justice’ movement...”

When the next “massive” protest takes place this week or next, we would all do well to separate the numerical claims of the organizers and media from reality. And to be aware of what the media is selling.

The writer is a retired faculty member of the University of California-Davis who divides his time between Ashdod and Davis. He blogs at

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