Public Opinion 2.0 or learning to love the bomb!?

In both the private and public sectors, communications must be managed to meet specific needs and make noticeable contributions. If you ask communications experts Øyvind Ihlen and Piet Verhoeven, they’ll tell you that this short-term, results-driven focus is largely the reason why PR pros are not fully aware of their fundamental influence on society – for better or for worse. Their advice? Communicators and the communications profession as a whole should routinely take a step back and use social science theories and models to understand the impact of their actions. And the need for such advice and action has seldom been as great as now. We are experiencing the fourth industrial revolution – a dynamic time that has handed our profession a completely new set of communications tools such as disintermediation (circumventing traditional mass media with social media), big data and now algorithm-based profiling.

In the past, communications management has largely borrowed from the humanities and the social sciences, which, unlike the natural sciences, are to a large extent unable to predict future trends in the issues they study. This means PR and marketing can also not be used as social techniques to make societal reality. Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek summed up this apparent paradox this way: “The whole idea of the mind explaining itself is a logical contradiction.”

Ever since the birth of mass media, communicators have dreamed of (or dreaded) creating social conditions by manipulating voters and consumers through reliably effective communications. Modern communications management has freed itself from such delusions of unilateral influence. Objectives such as shoring up legitimacy through social discourse (a social science perspective) or reducing transaction costs through the provision of information (an economic perspective) reflect a level of maturity that accounts for the requirements of an open society and the inability to predict human behavior as mentioned above – at least for the time being…

“I only showed that the bomb exists.” This is the remarkable title of a December 2016 interview given by Polish psychologist Michal Kosinski in Das Magazin, a Swiss cultural publication. In it, he shares how, as a student at the University of Cambridge, he used psychometric processes borrowed from psychology to develop a method to compare quiz answers, likes, profile photos and user habits on Facebook to create a preference profile for extremely small target groups – and send content to each group that would be sure to resonate. Kosinski recognized his methodology in the digital campaigns run by Brexit supporters in the UK as well as the social media strategies seen in the recent US presidential election campaign. He is concerned about this, and rightly so.

We have American journalist and scientist Walter Lippmann to thank for the concept of Public Opinion. After his experience with psychological warfare during the First World War, he published his seminal work in 1922, which demonstrates how limited individual world views are and why it is necessary to forge public opinion through competing media and political positions.

As communicators, we must ask ourselves whether we have come to the end of the Lippmann age and are now entering Public Opinion 2.0 – an era in which opinion is no longer forged as a conflict between fact-based and critically scrutinized statements, but as the result of purposefully steering people’s fears, hopes and instincts. Think of the fact that digital social bots rather than people are now often the triggers, and you get the picture. As we grapple with that question, we can only band together with the German Public Relations Council, which has declared that such opinion-making machines are incompatible with the principles of responsible PR.

Public opinion stands for an open, democratic society – Public Opinion 2.0 would bring about digital totalitarianism.

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