Everyone has an opinion but some are more important than others: researched vs. social

pete-wilsonInformation is often weighed on the strength and volume of opinions shared on social media but with less than 20% of Australians having a Twitter account, Pete Wilson asks: do we have the weight all wrong?

Opinions are a hot commodity these days. In the multi-platform, social media world facts are often disputed (or ignored) but opinions are always welcome. From everyone.

But too often social media chatter is hailed as a true reflection of what people really think.

How many ‘news’ stories begin with ‘people took to Twitter to voice their anger/sadness/outrage (especially outrage) over incident X’, as a summary of public opinion?

Professional and amateur ‘opinionistas’ launch feisty debates with each other on Twitter where the nature of the forum itself becomes a catalyst for even more opinion.

Consider those twitterati – many of whom are gainfully employed either in the media or elsewhere – who spend most days railing against Twitter. It’s social media eating itself.

But for all this prickliness, febrility and misguided ranting, it is fair to conclude that social media forums are an important part of free speech, democracy and that hoary old chestnut, ‘the marketplace of ideas’. That is, once you block out the numbing white noise of cat videos, ‘hilarious’ memes and celebrity gossip (is that a baby bump on Taylor Swift?).

Opinions are everywhere and we all seem to want to express them, all the time. And even though we know that only around 19% of Australians have a Twitter account (or perhaps less), with less than half of these logging on each day, the trending Twitterverse is often reported as reflecting the national mood.

This is something Twitter itself likes to trumpet, but as Mumbrella recently reported, its audience reach still has some way to go.

Professional opinion polling tries to take a more representative measure of attitudes and preferences by calibrating the opinions of the noisy minorities against the mainstream. For all the benefits gained through taking the pulse of the national mood, it is still a vexed discipline. (Disclosure: I make at least some of my living from opinion polling, so I should be careful here).

As with our opinionistas rampant on social media, opinion polling, by definition, often assumes we all have an opinion on something, whether the issue is same-sex marriage, the latest Paris agreement on cutting carbon emissions or whether democracy is preferable to any other form of government.

The answer, by the way, according to a recent Lowy Institute poll, is 65%. So it seems around one third of us wouldn’t mind trying out a bit of anarchy or theocracy or perhaps good old-fashioned totalitarianism.

What if you don’t know what you think about a particular topic or issue? You just honestly don’t know what can be done about climate change, or you’re not sure if what some overpaid cricketer said to a female journalist was inappropriate, or if we should let in more or fewer refugees.

Yes, you may have read about these things, thought about them, talked about them. Maybe even followed the debate on mainstream and social media. But you still don’t know.

In the world of social media you are a minority. In real life you are probably not.

One of my favourite poll questions that assumes people have the awareness, knowledge and therefore an informed opinion, goes along the line of:

Thinking now about electricity sources. Please indicate whether you would be supportive or unsupportive of having biomass as a source of electricity for your home?

(I’ll give you a moment while you Google ‘biomass’.)

Sometimes survey questions will give you a ‘don’t know’ option for these questions, and sometimes you have to offer it yourself. Sometimes you are not given a choice because ‘We really value your opinion!’

When someone asks you a question, there is an expectation that you give an answer. In our opinion-obsessed world ‘don’t know’ doesn’t always cut it.

Even worse is ‘I don’t care’. Again, not a common option provided in the world of opinion polling and not something easily gauged in the cut and thrust of social media debate, but a fundamental state of being for many Australians around many issues nonetheless.

Accurately measuring the community’s ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’ levels on particular issues can actually be very instructive. It can put into perspective the bluster that comes from those on the more extreme sides of the debate. Good opinion polls will include questions along these lines to provide context, but the results are rarely reported because they are not seen as headline or clickbait worthy.

Awareness (‘so what is this biomass thing again, exactly?’), interest (‘not another global talkfest about carbon emissions…yawn.’) and experience (‘umm, I don’t think I’ve actually lived anywhere other than a democracy, have I?’) guide our opinions along with a variety of other intersecting factors such as the values we hold, our upbringing, the company we keep and the information we absorb.

Simplistic analysis of opinion, whether through polling or the hurly-burly of social media debate, too often distorts what we think (or don’t think) about important issues.

With the election year gearing up this becomes even more important. Politicians and pollsters will be keen to know what you think. But only the smart ones will understand that measuring public opinion is not always so simple.

But that’s just my opinion. What do you think?

Pete Wilson is managing director of Kreab Research. He has more than 20 years’ experience in the social and market research sector and really values your opinion (even if you don’t know what it is, or don’t really care).


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