Public Opinion and Information: A Dangerous Combination

‘That guy is an asshole. The way he treated his wife is absolutely disgusting. I’m glad she left him, she deserves better…much better.’ That’s the response of society when it finds out that a famous soccer player has hit his wife, and that the pair consequently decided to split the sheets. But based on what does society form this judgment, or any judgment for that matter? Based on information of course! It heard from the tabloids what has occurred, it processes this information, and then comes to the most ‘reasonable’ conclusion/judgment. It’s pretty much like science, in that it bases its conclusions on data and reasons. But the prime difference between science and gossip/public opinion is that the latter doesn’t actively try to refute its conclusions: it solely responds to the data it receives. And this has some striking consequences.

Because what happens whenever the data changes? What happens when one or two lines in a tabloid form a new and ‘shocking’ announcement? What if it appears that – while the football player and his wife were still together – the wife had an affair with another guy? Then suddently the whole situation changes. Then suddenly the wife deserved to be hit. Then suddenly a hit in the face was a mild punishment for what she did. Then suddenly most people would have done the same whenever confronted with the same situation. Suddenly there is new data that to be taken into account. But what are the implications of this observation?

The public opinion can be designed and molded by regulating the (limited) amount of information it receives. And this goes not only for gossip, but just as much for more urgent matters like politics and economics. It isn’t society’s duty to gather as much data as possible, compare evidence for and against positions, and come to the most reasonable conclusion. No, society only has to take the final step: forming the judgment. And if you understand how it is that this mechanism works, you can (ab)use it for your own good. You could if you were in politics ‘accidentally’ leak information about a conversation the prime minister had with his colleagues, and thereby change the political game. The prime minister will be forced to respond to these ‘rumors’, thereby validating the (seemingly) importance of the issue. For why else would he take the time to respond to it? And suddenly, for the rest of his days, he will be reminded for this rumor, whether it turns out to be true – as it was in Bill Clinton‘s case – or not: where there’s smoke, there is fire.

But let me ask you something: don’t you think that famous people make mistakes everyday? Even if only 1 percent of the wives would get hit by their famous husbands every year, that would still be more than enough to fill each tabloid for the entire year. But what if – from all the ‘beating cases’ – only one or two would become public a year? Then – and only then – the guy who did the hitting becomes a jerk. Why? Because even though it might have been the case that the guys hits his wife, even if we don’t know it, now we have the data to back up our judgement. And since we’re reasonable creatures who only jump to conclusions whenever we’ve got evidence to do so, we are suddenly morally allowed to do so.

We find ourselves to be reasonable creatures for solely basing our judgments on the data we receive. We find this a better way to go than just claiming things even though we don’t know them for sure. And although this might very well be the reasonable way to go, we have to remind ourselves that we’re slaves to the data, and therefore vulnerable to those providing the data. We have to be aware that even though we don’t know about the cases we don’t have data about, this doesn’t imply that the cases aren’t there. It merely means that the parties involved – whether this is the (ex) wife of a famous soccer player or anyone else – saw no reason to leak the data. It only means that their interests were more aligned than they were opposed. And we should take people’s interests – and the politics behind it – into account when jumping to judgments based on the data we receive.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

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