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Not really public opinion!

Oct 03,2021 - Last updated at Oct 03,2021

Public opinion is undisputedly important for decision making. People’s views concerning issues, as well as in respect of governance generally, must be taken into consideration when taking decisions, as people are at once the source of governance and the recipients of the outcomes of decisions, be they positive or negative.

However, the question that poses itself today, in light of developments over the past two decades in particular, is the following: Does what is said or written in social media constitute public opinion?

The answer, in light of experience and after careful consideration, is: Without a doubt, No, it does not.

We recognise, of course, that some of what is said or written in social media is deep, relevant and useful, and that it should be taken into account when an official or a committee looks into a matter and wants to decide on it.

The more opinions we elicit and the more angles from which we view matters, the more informed our decisions turn out to be.

But we recognise also that most of what gets said or written in social media is characterised as having either no value or is negative and subversive.

Few people express themselves positively, wisely, and profoundly. Most babble, deride, satirise, belittle, vent frustrations, curse and demonise others; offering emotionally-charged discourse, built on impressions, sweeping generalisations, half-truths and even falsehoods.

The more dangerous and subversive is what is said or written for the mere purpose of making fun of and rejecting the opinions of others, without basing it on credible analysis or offering alternatives; just for the sake of saying no to anything and everything.

And herein lies the basis of the view that social media generally is not useful for decisionmakers, and it should not, therefore, be taken seriously when making decisions.

The vice of some officials is, therefore, manifested clearly when they base their decisions on social media discourse for the sake of popularity, forgetting that social media discourse is both fickle and a red-herring; and thus end up making unstudied, bad decisions, at times with disastrous consequences.

And the vice of some is also manifested equally negatively, perhaps even more negatively, when they back out and withdraw their decisions the minute there is objection to them on social media.

Good decisions are those made by specialised committees, or experts, or as a result of careful thinking after weighing the serious opinions of others; and once made on this basis, these decisions should not be reversed or withdrawn.

The fear by some officials of the negative reaction to their decisions in social media, and the eventual withdrawal of such decisions, is a worrying phenomenon in our society today.

Our society was built by strong institutions headed by officials who took brave decisions, after careful study and stuck by them.

Having officials at the head of our institutions today who fear social media and hasten to back out weakens our institutions and deprives our society of the ability to move forward confidently and courageously.

One understands, of course, why some of these officials do so: It is either because they are incompetent and weak, or because they fear lack of support from higher officials when their decisions are criticised.

What adds insult to injury, of course, are those officials who do not know where real public opinion is and mistake social media discourse for it.

Public opinion is important, and it can be elicited in so many known and established ways. Social media discourse, on the other hand, is not public opinion and should not be mistaken for it.

This fact is important to point out for those who are not aware of it.

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