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Public Opinion

Social Communication

In any society of organisms that exhibit collective behaviour there must be some form of communication between the members of the society. This could be as simple as a birds alarm call or as sophisticated as the internet. Social communication is the transfer of information between the members of a society. Humans certainly appears to be the most sophisticated social communicators of any all the species on earth. This section is an examination of some apparently innate characteristics of human social communication.

Human Communication Network Evolution

Local communication

Initially the form of the social communication network was very much limited to the spoken word which gave no capability to communicate over distances and no capability for the convenient storage of information. Communication for the majority was limited by the physical constraints of both space and time.

For a long time the primary social organisation was the village, a largely self sufficient unit where opinions were communicated through the spoken word and perhaps influenced by the odd passing traveller. As a result of the industrial revolution many industrial towns formed from the 1700s but still supporting the oral tradition.

Mass communication

In the middle of the 1800s paper and books became widely affordable to all as a result of industrialisation and at this time there was a corresponding rise in literacy. In the late 1800s formal education was introduced partly because politicians believed that education was needed to maintain orderly political behavior. The historian Harvey Graff has argued that the introduction of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of literacy that the working class had access to. According to Graff, literacy learning was increasing outside of formal settings (such as schools) and this uncontrolled, potentially critical reading could lead to increased radicalization of the populace.
The telegraph which began around 1843 and had spread widely by 1860 provided fast but still expensive communications.



Broadcasting provided easily controlled single source of information that was more attractive in many respects than written material.
Voice Broadcasting began in 1910 in California and the BBC began in 1922 it being the first national radio station.
Television only really took off after WWII.


The internet now offers cheap and easy multi source information.
The internet has really come into public use from 2000 to 2010
Communication channels have broadened as the voice was swamped by the printing press and the printing press swamped again by the TV but these channels have been in the hands of a few. The internet has created a medium capable of growing vary broad channels but also supporting very narrow ones.


As a result of the evolution of the social communication networks over the last 300 years, social groups have been freed from the constraints of geography and allowed to form based on the kind of information that members wish to communicate with one another leading to a change from largely local generalist groups that are hard to enter and leave to global specialist groups that are easy to enter and leave.


The great waves of popular opinions spread like viruses competing for hosts and from time to time lead to popular action, acts of great charity, acts or protest or acts of revolution or acts of war. Popular opinion is however not determined primarily by the truth of the opinion but more by the peoples ability to grasp, justify and communicate the opinion, and their motivation to do so.

Sadly this means that simple opinions are more easily spread then complex ones. and that provocative opinion might well spread faster and wider than non-provocative opinion.

Opinions like life its self, compete for living space, but in the minds of the population and so a population will forget one thing when another more pervasive opinion appears.

Collective decision and action

  • In view of this, how can one involve a population in decisions or actions.
  • How should one motivate popular action for some cause or other when there is a good chance that the majority will either not have the time, the resources or the ability to make a decision as to whether to join in that action or not.
  • Should one simplify the opinion, its justification and increase its communicability, but in so doing will it not loose its integrity.
  • By simplification one frees ones self from the details and once free of the details, what depended on them can be easily changed and corrupted.
So the ground is laid to lead or mislead.

Influencing Social Opinion 

An opinion is a statement about some given subject. It is expected that an opinion will be validated some how. People may act on their opinions and so by influencing opinions one may influence actions.

Propaganda was once defined as either true or false information deliberately propagated for the purpose of changing social opinion. There is some argument to support the opinion that this meaning should be restored.

However In the last century the word propaganda has come to mean only outright deception. Advertising, promotion and Public Relations (PR) are now words for the section of what used to be called propaganda that is not considered to be outright deception.

Thus I use the words "social communication" as a replacement for the old word "propaganda" and "social opinion" i.e. public opinion, is what it influences.

I will consider both good and bad uses of social communication with indifference and hope that you will be better protected from bad social information.

People may seek to influence social opinion in order to;
  • Increase or decrease awareness of an issue.
  • Promote or demote certain social actions such as decisions in relation to buying, voting or other social or anti-social behaviour.
  • Effect social network structure, promote or demote certain social network types i.e. promote help your neighbour or demote organised crime.
  • Change opinions about past events or change recollection of the past.
Methods include;
  • education
  • advertising
  • Indoctrination
For an opinion to become widely held in society it will need to be both validated and propagated.

Opinion Validation

Some primary forms of validation are considered here logical, emotional, trust or popularity.

Logical Validation

Logical validation of an opinion relies on some reasoning process which is normally empirical, inferential or defined;
  • Empirical - The opinion has been true for observations made so far. i.e. All cars have wheels.
  • Inferred - The opinion is true based on reasoning from other opinions that are true. i.e.
  • Defined - The opinion is true because its defined that way. i.e. All football players play with a football.
A generalisation is a opinion that is arguably true for all a group of subjects. Generalisations are widely used in most arguments. The Justification can be;
  • Empirical - The opinion has been shown to be true for a reasonable sample from the group and so it is reasonably assumed to be true of the entire group. Misuses include basing the generalisation on too small a sample or ignoring counter examples. Only one counter example is required to prove the generalisation false.
  • Inferred - There is a opinion that does apply for all the group from which the general opinion in question may be inferred. Misuses include making defective inferences, or ignoring counter examples.
  • Defined - The group is defined such that the general opinion is true for all its subjects. Misuses include claiming a subject is a member of the group when it is not in order to apply the generalisation.
Generality claims include;
  • Analogy - A is like B and so opinions that apply to B also apply to A. Where A is possibly not like B to the extent implied.
  • Claim of similarity. I am was just like you and now I have come to accept this as right. TODO
  • Your either with us or your against us.

Emotional Validation

Emotional validation is when an opinion feels right.
  • Expression - The opinion is expressed inherently is positive or negative language i.e. free choice, pro-life. Slogans music etc. that appeal to poetry and rhythm.
  • Association - Associating the opinion with undesirable or desirable things words or concepts one can promote or demote it. Often the Association is fictional i.e. puppy dogs and toilet rolls.

Trust or Faith Validation

Trust validation is where we do not justify the opinion its self because we are of the opinion that opinions from the given source are valid. Trust validation are a necessary part of social information as we could not afford for each member of society to thoroughly validate every opinion they hold themselves.

Popularity Validation

Popularity validation is where we do not justify the opinion its self because we are of the opinion that opinions that are accepted by the mass of people are valid. Popularity validation clearly has risks in that any opinion true or not can take hold and grow.

Avoidance of Validation

A persons emotional attachment to an opinion or loss of credibility linked to having their opinion falsified may lead them to attempt to divert or debase their opponent;
  • Diversion - Subtly changing the issue of the argument to another they hope they can win. i.e. "yes but lass week you left your shoes in the hall" when the issue was who left a plate unwashed in the sink.
  • Debasing - Attempting to undermine their opponents credebility. i.e "your an idiot anyway" or "you don't know what your talking about".

Opinion Propagation

Propagation of an opinion may be effected by;

  • Simplicity
  • Sensationalism
  • Humour, Shock, Fear,
  • Influence its ascribed importance
  • Influence its priority among other opinions
  • Social conformity Band Wagon
  • Integrity
  • Evidence

Although we may be able to reach a large population through the media and our message may be effective, the effect will only be in proportion to the population we reached and the effect may well decrease with time. The message is not alive. It does not propagate itself. The message we want is a live message, one that reproduces itself, has babies, one people want to tell each other.

Validation Structure

A given opinion has a supporting validation structure. It will have empirical, inferential and emotional validation links to supporting opinions. The lowest level supporting opinions (foundation opinions) within any given article should be opinions that are already accepted by the audience if the audience is to be convinced. (An article could be a written article but might also mean a lecture or presentation in this context.) 

Clearly a article's foundation opinions may be further supported by lower level opinions in other articles.

Influencing Opinion Validation

Articles that describe reality will invariably have an inherent coherence because they all contain opinions about one real world. Even large true articles will naturally maintain their coherence. False articles on the other hand lose coherence the larger they get and so huge amounts of effort must be expended in order to maintain them, giving truth a distinct advantage.
  • Thus deceivers who fail to propagate an entirely false story will often prefer to propagate just part of a true story in the hope that it will be seen as the whole story (a phony come clean) and so attention will be diverted away from them. 

Influencing Opinion Propagation 

In propagating an opinion the articles supporting structure will depend on the audience. If the foundation opinions are not very deep than clearly not much structure will be required. Also audiences may have a preference for logical, emotional, trust/faith or popularity validation. These validation preferences may make it harder or easier to change the audiences opinion on a matter. i.e. harder or easier to create the article.

The role of trust/faith in accepting validity is a social mechanism for avoiding unnecessary duplicated effort. If an individual can find sources that they can trust or have faith in then their capability may be used elsewhere.

Propagation can be influenced to some extent through the following;

  • Censorship or gagging.
  • Biasing through promotion of one view demotion of another.
  • Dilution with other, often false opinions or expanded irrelevant detail.
  • Distraction with other more volatile opinions.
  1. Releasing huge numbers of stories that will be seen as false by the reasonable minority but seen as possibly true by the unreasonable majority, the unreasonable majority can be distracted from the truth and the reasonable minority's voice can be overwhelmed. 
  2. By lumping them all together as "Conspiracy theorists". A false grouping.
  3. Then most of what conspiracy theorists believe is nonsense. A true conclusion.

The Information Network

Information Depth

A sophisticated information network should communicate and store information, and support multiple validation structures.

Being able to hiding or expose appropriate validation structure for each audience type or information channel.

Information Channels

Information will be communicated often through established channels that may have been open for some time. Channels will open or close based on the decision of the many people in the channel. Each channel may have its own propagation criteria. i.e. only propagates information from certain people, established sources, or from sources of a particular social class, or that is sensational, or that is anti-establishment or pro-establishment.

Information Network Structure

Optimal information network topologies are not fully hierarchical but nor are they entirely anarchical.

Free networks, that is networks where individuals have entirely chosen their own objectives and directives do form hierarchies related to the task (action) hierarchies required to attain the objectives and directives.

These natural task hierarchies can become deformed through the imposition of other hierarchical structures by additional punishment or reward.

© Tom de Havas 2011. The information under this section is my own work it may be reproduced without modification but must include this notice.