Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Public Opinion about Public Opinion

That great philosopher, Lucifer, once said:

   Public opinion is nothing more than this,
   what people think that other people think.

Okay, Victorian playwright Alfred Austin actually put these words in the mouth of his title character, Prince Lucifer, in his 1891 play.

(yes I've mentioned this before, back in 2008)

What I'm discussing here is part of a larger work I'm fiddling with, the idea that we don't spend enough time studying people's opinions about public opinion -- or, for lack of a better word, meta-opinion.  There are theoretical traditions where this is more common (Spiral of Silence comes immediately to mind).  These traditions tend to view public opinion from a social control perspective.  Two factors come into play here: (1) we're always sensing the climate of opinion around us, and (2) a fear of isolation leads us to go with the majority, or at least not express our minority viewpoints as readily as we might.

Psychology has examined this in detail at the micro, individual level, or small-group level (my favorite, false consensus, but see also pluralistic ignorance for a more macro and contradictory approach). 

My point is related to, but separate from, what people think about public opinion polls.  In a sense, people view such polls negatively when the results disagree with their own positions, an example of the hostile media effect.  It's vital we tease out the difference between how people respond to a poll -- and who published it -- and how they think about public opinion in a broader sense.  In the latter, I'm talking about their acceptance (or rejection) of the idea of public opinion, their acceptance that other opinions have merit, their acceptance of whether such opinions should guide policy.  How do people define public opinion?  And has this definition changed in a world that has moved from mainstream few-to-many media to social media in which we have an almost instantaneous access to, as our friend Lucifer said above, "what other people think?"  I'm guessing social media, From Facebook to Twitter, have changed our ideas of what truly is public opinion.  And I'm guessing it's become something more narrow, more in tune with our "friends" and "followers."

And it's entirely possible I'm completely wrong.

This is me thinking aloud as I work on a longer, more thorough examination of the topic, hopefully with actual data gathered (or found elsewhere) to fully explore whether people think of public opinion today in a very different way than they used to -- and what that means for public policy, for elections, and ultimately for a healthy democracy.

No comments: