Is measuring public opinion really possible?

Public opinion in politics

How many times have you heard someone say, “No one thinks that anymore,” or “Everyone loves X”? We all do it, even politicians and public figures. Without any real capacity to accurately assess or measure it, we assume that we understand public opinion on a given topic. 

But is there really an accurate way to assess what people think? Although public opinion can be critical, it’s actually very difficult to quanitfy, and until recently, the tools available to assess it have been limited. But before diving into how to assess it, let’s look at how public opinion can impact politics.

Public opinion and democracy

Public opinion plays a critical role in a democracy—the key principle of democracy is that officials are elected to represent the public. In order to fulfil that role, they have to have an ongoing understanding of what their constituents think and want. They have to ensure that they are not alienating their constituencies in order to be elected and/or maintain their positions once in office.

Public opinion and foreign policy

Foreign policy issues are complex and dynamic. In order to ensure that public opinion is reflected in foreign policy, officials need a way to assess opinions in real time.

Public opinion and policy making

Candidates focus on certain issues during their campaign, but new issues and dilemmas often arise when they’re in office. In order to ensure that their positions on dynamic issues accurately represent the desires of their constituents, politicians need a way to gague public opinion on an ongoing basis before making decisions about policy.

Measuring public opinion with surveys

For decades, the most effective methods of measuring public perception have been surveys, polls, and sampling. Surveys or polls aim to answer a specific policy or political question, such as how many people plan to vote for a certain candidate or whether or not people are in favor of building a new road. Since asking every member of the target audience would take too long and require too much manpower, surveys and polls rely on samples and use standard deviation to predict the results for the entire population. 

The problem with surveys and polls is that they are notoriously unreliable. The slightest change in wording can lead to very different results, and since they depend on self reporting, there is no guarantee that the person is telling the truth. Moreover, they give a snapshot of certain point in time, but can’t reflect ongoing fluctuations in opinion. And the sample can be skewed and doesn’t always predict the opinion of the greater population it aims to represent. 

The most recent presidential elections in the US and the pre-Brexit polling gave the world a real-life illustration how unreliable polls can be, even when the most sophisticated tools and statistical analysis is used. There is no question that better tools are needed, which is where Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) comes in.

 

Tools for measuring perception

Tool
Definition
Benchmark polls
Polls that serve as a base for comparison, before an intervention or at the beginning of a campaign to judge its impact.
Opinion polls
A poll or a sampling that is used to predict election results or estimate public perceptions on issues.
Tracking polls
A survey performed repeatedly with the same group of people to check and measure changes of opinion.
Entrance and exit polls
Polls taken at voting locations on an election day. They are often used to determine election results before the official count has been completed.
Focus groups
A small, demographically-diverse group of people assembled for an in-depth group discussion during which researchers assess their reactions.
Open Source Intelligence
Ongoing monitoring of social groups, hashtags, and keywords across several social media platforms to gain a real-time picture of where the public’s attention is focused and how they feel about specific issues.

Public perception and OSINT

Web intelligence offers a superior alternative to polling and surveys. By monitoring social groups, hashtags, and keywords across several social media platforms, it presents a real-time picture of what people are focused on and what they feel about a variety of issues and topics. Web intelligence, or OSINT, doesn’t depend on what subjects say they think, but what really interests them and catches their attention. Since it analyzes actual behavior rather than self-reporting, it is much more accurate than any kind of polling. 

Another factor that contributes to its accuracy is the sample size. Rather than using tiny samples and statistics to predict the results for the total population, OSINT can be used to monitor entire communities. It gives decision-makers the real-time opinion of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of users, about any issue they’re interested in. For example, they can see how a speech, a decision, or even a faux pas impacts what people think of them and their policies. 

It’s also a lot less expensive than polling. Instead of paying pollsters to contact subjects and racking up HR expenses, sophisticated technology does it better, in less time, with a minimal investmen. Without the budgetary limitations, there truly is no limit to what elements of public opinion can be measured and assessed. 

Technology has already revolutionized almost every aspect of our lives. OSINT leverages technology to eliminate the limitations of old-school tools for assessing public opinion, and bring the discipline into the 21st century. 

You can learn more about how we enable real-time public opinion measuring using OSINT here.

 

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