A Deeper Look at Freedom: How Perceptions Differ Across Countries and Groups

Our recent polling for the BBC World Service showed a very mixed picture of the state of freedoms today, especially in established democracies following Edward Snowden’s allegations of widespread surveillance by the US Government.
In order to better understand how different nationalities and groups rate their freedom, GlobeScan’s Advanced Analytics Team applied some statistical techniques to reveal deeper insights into how perceptions differ across the 17 countries included in our latest poll of 17,000 people.
The first analysis we performed was to create a Perceived Freedom Index for each country by weighting each of 5 freedoms equally1. The final index ranges from 0 to 100: the higher the index, the higher the level of perceived freedom in a particular country (with 100 being the optimal score that is theoretically achievable).
As you can see from the chart below, with the 17 countries appearing in decreasing Index order, there are some interesting surprises. Countries with very different incomes, political regimes and democratic traditions share similar ratings. Countries with relatively difficult socio-economic conditions such as Peru and Indonesia sit atop the list along with “longtime democracies” like Australia, Canada and Spain. The United States comes 12th. France, another champion of individual freedoms, comes 15th. South Korea and Pakistan are judged least free by their citizens.

The results indicate that while being a universal concept, freedom is also a relative idea, lived subjectively and differently by people from diverse culture, and certainly independent from traditional socio-economic criteria or democratic classification.
This Freedom Index is a good “balanced score card” that helps differentiate between countries and socio-demographic groups of population. However, the index falls short of revealing specific patterns that reflect citizens’ feelings, attitudes and concerns.  In order to identify, understand and describe these patterns our team segmented all respondents into groups. Respondents within a segment share the same pattern of freedom perceptions.

Freedom Segments

The segments we have discovered reflect how citizens feel when it comes to their relationship with their national government in the areas of human rights and personal freedoms2.

The Free – The first segment, which we label ‘Free’ are those who believe that they are living in a country where freedom of speech, conscience, religion, marriage, and freedom from government interference are embraced and protected.

The Chaperoned – The second segment includes citizens who feel generally happy with the level of freedom, though not as unconditionally as the ‘Free’ citizens. What most differentiates this segment from the ‘Free’ group is a personal feeling of not being completely free from government surveillance and monitoring.  However, this is not perceived as a form of social sanction – but rather as a benign check on civic decency and propriety. Because this segment does not seem to perceive this type of surveillance negatively we have called it ‘Chaperoned’.

The Watched – While a majority of the third segment, which we have named ‘Watched,” are satisfied with the state of the freedoms of speech, religion, and marriage, they also feel somewhat annoyed by government surveillance of their personal and public life.

The Ruled – The last segment we call ‘Ruled’ because it is composed of people who most feel somewhat deprived and oppressed when it comes to all four basic democratic freedoms explored in the poll.

Based on the segments’ distribution, the surveyed nations don’t exhibit any clear patterns or clusters. Countries with the highest representation of the ‘Free’ segment include high-income countries, such as Australia, Canada, UK and Spain, as well as low-income Kenya and Peru. A lower representation of ‘Free’ people is found in South Korea, Nigeria, USA, Indonesia, Pakistan, Germany and France. As for the ‘Ruled’ segment, the largest percentages are found in India and Pakistan.
The segments’ distribution across surveyed countries can be seen by selecting a different country at the top of the following chart.

On the global level, it does appear that a stronger sense of freedom comes with social maturity, because the ‘Free’ citizens tend to be older than members of the other 3 segments. Younger people in many countries are more likely to feel deprived of one or more basic democratic freedoms.
Other than this age difference, there are very few socio-economic or demographic differences between the members of different segments, which suggests that it is not social class or economic status that shape the feelings and viewpoints but rather the political regime and discourse in a given country as well as the system of government that set views apart. In other words, cross-country differences were more prominent than socio-demographic differences.
Paraphrasing the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina we can say ‘all happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way’.
It will be interesting to see how the Perceived Freedom Index and the Freedom Segments evolve over time. The perceived intrusiveness of government surveillance over the Internet is likely to be the major driver of change in these findings. Indeed, it can be argued that this perception will most shape the potential role of the Internet in developing or renewing our freedoms and democracies.

The five freedoms used to create the Index included discussing any issue publicly, practicing religion of choice, living with partner of choice, freedom from surveillance, and press freedom. All five questions were first recoded into the same 0 to 4-point scale and the mean scores were then converted into a rating score up to 20 for each question. Then the 5 scores were added together to produce an Index on a scale up to 100.
The segments were identified using a Latent Class Modeling algorithm.

Related content: