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The power of social media to shape public opinion

The power of social media to shape public opinion

The power of social media to shape public opinion has been the focus of much debate over the past years. One particular challenge has been the rise of so-called hate speech in online media. Policy makers are currently debating whether and how to limit hate speech on social media platforms. In practice, this could be realized by algorithms or by humans. What are the ethical, political, legal, and social implications of regulating hate speech on social media for individuals, society, and social media corporations? What would be a better option for regulation – human or algorithmic censors? Which research questions can you think of in this context?

Public opinion, as necessary a concept it is to the underpinnings of democracy, is a socially constructed representation of the public that is forged by the methods and data from which it is derived, as well as how it is understood by those tasked with evaluating and utilizing it. I examine how social media manifests as public opinion in the news and how these practices shape journalistic routines. I draw from a content analysis of news stories about the 2016 US election, as well as interviews with journalists, to shed light on evolving practices that inform the use of social media to represent public opinion. I find that despite social media users not reflecting the electorate, the press reported online sentiments and trends as a form of public opinion that services the horserace narrative and complements survey polling and vox populi quotes. These practices are woven into professional routines – journalists looked to social media to reflect public opinion, especially in the wake of media events like debates. Journalists worried about an overreliance on social media to inform coverage, especially Dataminr alerts and journalists’ own highly curated Twitter feeds. Hybrid flows of information between journalists, campaigns, and social media companies inform conceptions of public opinion.

If community judgment is ‘a contested and malleable concept’ (Herbst, 1998: 2), then learning the ways that it can be made, especially by elites like editors who represent our judgment(s) to us via reports insurance, is of utmost importance for the technique of democracy. And yet, the meaning of public opinion is contingent: ‘The social climate, technological milieu, and communication environment in any democratic state together determine the way we think about public opinion and the ways we try to measure it’ (Herbst, 1998: 1). The rise of social media is a significant aspect of today’s hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2013), which focuses on the interactions between political actors, the media, and the public. These shifting dynamics, and the communication technologies that enable and support them, necessarily reorder the social, technical, and communication contingencies upon which public opinion is constructed. If survey methods helped to form a mass public, what type of public do social media and their metrics form?

Because I file right here, social websites and their metrics present an rising methods of measuring and symbolizing the public. Social media do not stand to replace surveys as a means to measure public opinion, but rather provide a distinct representation of the public. In fact, this representation of public opinion through social media is flawed in different ways than surveys are limited. Yet, social media as a form of public opinion is impossible to ignore. Journalists draw on social media in various ways in the course of their reporting on political contests, from documenting public reaction to media events to evaluating the performances of candidates.

For so long, polling has ruled these understandings of general public opinion, although the entrance of social media – along with its details – on the governmental scenario has disturbed these practices. In documenting to what extent, and how, journalists turn to social media data to understand the public, I chart the important implications for the practices of journalism, as well as for the study of public opinion itself.

Representations of public view As of late, individuals tasked with which represents general public viewpoint – political stars and also the press (and also academics) – have primarily utilized study polls to represent a bulk public viewpoint. But the necessarily mediated process of crafting citizens’ actual opinions into a consumable product is of course malleable and selective. Public opinion, as necessary a concept it is to the underpinnings of democracy, is a socially constructed representation of the public that is forged by the methods and data from which it is derived, as well as how it is understood by those tasked with evaluating and utilizing it.

Sarah Igo’s (2007) The Averaged American maps the growth of contemporary representations of public view via study polling. She argues that polling is a distinct practice that represents the public in particular ways that was legitimated in part due to a set of political claims in relation to democracy. Beginning in the 1940s, George Gallup and Elmo Roper dismissed straw polls, ushering what we now see as standards in public opinion polling: generating representative samples and surveying individuals about their opinions, including on candidates running for office (Gallup and Rae, 1940; Igo, 2007).

These epistemological underpinnings of polling have shaped normative assumptions about community view a lot more extensively, but have not went without criticism. As early as 1948, the sociologist Herbert Blumer (1948) argued that survey methods could not possibly assess the nature of actual public attitudes, as they ignore the social and indeed the public aspects of public opinion. Polling purports that opinion is individualized, yet illustrative of a public. In the inaugural issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, Allport (1937) lays out the vision of a public opinion that is ‘defined as the number of people holding a certain opinion, and the people holding that opinion would be identified as belonging to the public’ (p. 9). As Peters (1995) points out, this is a circular (and self-reinforcing) vision of public opinion that creates at times rather arbitrary groupings of individuals to form a public, who may not see themselves as belonging to a ‘public’ manufactured by associations found in survey data. Furthermore, as Blumer (1948) and others have noted (see also, Entman and Herbst, 2001; Fishkin, 2006), surveys reveal individual not social opinion, obfuscating the societal and collective components of public opinion.