Public opinion is the belief, values and attitudes, which are commonly held and expressed by the majority of the people on a given public issue. In addition, it is about what people think concerning a particular national issue or question as proposed by the government.
Similarly, a consensus of opinion may be formed when majority of people in a given country has similar or same opinion on any sensitive issue of national importance.
Formation Of Public Opinion
Many factors affect the formation of public opinion. The most important ones are personal experiences, the mass media, pressure groups, political parties, and government and opinion leaders. These forces that shape public opinion are now explained below.
#1 – Personal Experience
Personal experiences play a significant role in the formation of public opinion. The kind of socialization, which an individual goes through in the family, school, workplace and occupational and professional groups eventually shapes his orientation and attitude towards political issues. An opinion is a habit learnt through childhood and adulthood. A person’s opinion therefore, is based on any objective analysis of issues but most of his views or expressions may have been influenced by, or borrowed from others. Our opinions are often coloured by prejudices, likes or dislikes or by consideration of personal interest.
Opinion may therefore perform two socially important functions for the individual. First, opinion helps to make friends and join groups of like minds. For example, a person who likes helping the poor may find it fulfilling to join a voluntary association (such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent) or a human rights group or a socialistparty. The second function of opinion is that it serves the personal interest of the individual. It is human to be self-serving in our actions but people generally disguise their personal interests even while claiming to be working for the common good.
The strongly-held opinions which derive from personal experiences are usually difficult to change. This may partly explain why political leaders often fmd it difficult to change public opinion.
The mass media are a potent influence on public opinion. As a means of communication, the mass media (that is radio, television, newspapers, etc) are used to pass information from the government to the people, and from the governed to the government. The mass media educate, inform and entertain the people and, by performing these functions, the media influence our knowledge and understanding of issues. The mass media may, however, distort the people’s views. A person who, for example, hears a particular story over and over again on radio and television may believe it even though the story may be untrue.
This is especially the case with propaganda. In the past, propaganda involved the presentation of all sides of a story so that the people might make balanced judgments. But today, propaganda is simply associated with a one-sided pre sentation of a point of view, with tricks of appealing to emotions rather than reason and with downright deceit. In short, propaganda is an effort to manufacture a “public opinion” favourable to a particular interest.
In socialist and totalitarian states where the newspapers, radio and television are owned and controlled by the state, the media are a major instrument of propaganda. They are used, along with the educational system to control and indoctrinate the people. On the contrary, liberal democratic states like the United States of America and developing countries like Nigeria allow private ownership of the mass media and this gives the people opportunity to choose what they want to watch or read. In spite of the opportunity to make a choice in liberal democratic states, the owners of mass media outfits and their staff play a significant role in moulding public opinion.
The central objective of a pressure group is to influence government policies in favour of its members. To achieve this objective, a pressure group sometimes presents written proposals to government officials. But in presenting its proposals, a pressure group often rationalizes its own interests to make them appear to be advantageous to the entire population. That is, pressure groups tend to turn their private opinion into public opinion by arousing the sympathy of other people and groups in the society. They make their group problem look like a general one.
#4 – Political Parties
Political parties also influence the formation of public opinion. Since the primary objective of a political party is to control the machinery of government, it follows therefore that a political party is naturally a centre of intense political activity and any individual who seriously desires to influence government and its policies may have to join a political party.
Like pressure groups, political parties too use a number of techniques to Influences the electorate to vote in a particular way. A political party educates the electorate, mobilizes the people, and makes itself look good to the voters. Political parties are most active during their campaigns for election when they make a lot of promises so that the people will vote for them. In many cases, the people are persuaded and they drift along taking the party or group opinion as their own until the sincerity or insincerity of the political parties is exposed.
#5 – Government
Perhaps the most potent influence on the formation of public opinion is the government. If government policies are to reflect the wishes of the electorates, and if government must be responsible and responsive to the will of the people, then the government must carry the people along at all times. It is important for government to guide and educate the people on its policies and programmes in order to secure their support for public policies.
#6 – Opinion Leaders
Opinion leaders also help to mould public opinion. Opinion leaders interpret, transmit and discuss news by talking to their fellow workers, union members, friends, drinking companions and neighbours. Knowing intimately their immediate environment, opinion leaders are able to relate media messages more effectively and meaningfully to local issues and interests than any other group could hope to do. They are particularly important in our rural areas where there is inadequate access to the news media.