Public opinion may be defined as 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. For example during Babangida’s administration, the issue of I.M.F. came up whether Nigeria should go to IMF or not for loan. At the end, there was a consensus of opinion, majority of the citizens objected to the idea and the government had to shelve the plan.
CHARACTERISTICS OF PUBLIC OPINION
- It is the opinion shared: Public opinion deals with an issue affecting most citizens of a particular country and every citizen has to participate in expressing opinion.
- It involves public issues: Public opinion involves public issues.
- Expression by private person: Private individuals express public opinion. It is not the government or any public institutions.
- The role of communication: Communication and information play a significant role in public opinion formation.
- Specific issues: Opinions expressed by the public are mainly on specific issues rather than on a general public issue.
- Public opinion is not static: It is dynamic and changes from time to time.
FORMATION OF PUBLIC OPINION
- Through elections: Political parties educate the people on important public issues during campaigns, rallies, etc, and by this, opinions are formed.
- Through mass media: Public opinion can be formed through mass media:colour radio, newspapers, television etc.
- Through pressure groups and political parties: These two groups help in the formation of public opinion. They are capable of shaping the views of the people on matters of public importance. This can be done through their manifestos, conferences, debate, etc.
- Bureau of information: This bureau is established by the government to inform the public on the activities of government. It helps the public to form opinions on policies made and implemented by the government.
- Symposia and lectures: It can be formed through holding of lectures and symposia, where ideas on matters of public importance are expressed.
- Individual’s Influence: Members of the community, friends and relatives can also influence one’s opinion about public issues.
HOW PUBLIC OPINION IS DETERMINED AND MEASURED
- Channels of communication: Government can determine people’s opinion through exploring all the channels of communication e.g. opinions expressed in newspapers, radio, television, etc.
- Opinions expressed by leaders of thought: It can also be determined or measured through opinions expressed by local leaders of thought or leaders in the representative assemblies.
- Letters to government: Citizens may write letters to government agencies expressing their opinions on a particular issue of national importance.
- Response to government policies: Government can also take notice of public response to its policies. It could be through mass protests and demonstration for or against its programmes.
- Referendum or plebiscite: Government may conduct a referendum or plebiscite to determine what the people want on any particular issue. It determines the acceptability or not of proposals put forward by the government.
- Telephone calls: Most of the radio stations in Nigeria today, adopt this method by presenting phone-in-programmes. A sort of random sampling of the opinions of the public.
- Opinion poll: Government may use opinion polls to determine the mind and views of the people on a given issue, by interviewing a cross section of the public. Those interviewed will then represent the opinions of the citizens.
- Through elections: It can be measured through the outcome of elections. The result of an election could help to determine how popular or unpopular a government and its policies are.
FUNCTIONS/IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC OPINION
- Policies and activities of government: Public opinion helps the government to know the feelings of the people concerning its policies and activities.
- Needs of the people: The people’s problems, needs and desire are known to the government through public opinion.
- Good policies: Public opinion helps the government to formulate adequate policies that will meet the demands and alleviate the suffering of the people.
- Checking the excesses of government: Through this method, the government is made to account for its actions.
- Cabinet reshuffle: Public opinion can bring about the removal of a minister or his movement to other departments.
- Support of the people: It determines the extent of support the people have for such government.
- To be watchful: Public opinion helps the government to be watchful over its actions or activities as it relates to the people.
DEMERITS OF PUBLIC OPINION
- Difficult to measure: It is difficult to measure the opinion of the people on a particular issue.
- Public opinion can be manipulated: It can be manipulated by a few influential individuals in the society for their own selfish ends.
- It may not represent general opinion: Public opinion may be the views of very few powerful and influential individuals in the society.
- It may give wrong picture: It may give wrong, confusing and distortful picture on a given issue.
- Not often reliable: It is not often reliable and therefore not advisable for governments to rely on it.
- Views expressed by a cross-section of the society cannot be adequate: They are few and as such cannot adequately represent, the opinions of the citizens, that are in the majority. Such does not make for a consensus of opinion as long as the majority is not involved.
Factors That Can Promote Public Opinion In a State
- Press freedom: The use of the mass media should be maintained
- Bureau of information: This should be established to receive, compile and disseminate information
- Freedom of speech and association: By encouraging and allowing freedom of speech and association
- Activities of pressure groups: By encouraging the activities of pressure groups and other voluntary organizations.
- Opinion polls: Encouraging the use of opinion polls on issues of general importance.
- Existence of political parties: Will help to mould the opinion of the people
- Responsible and responsive: For e.g. Social institutions such as families and religious centers should be able to demonstrate these.
Opinion poll is a scientific method of measuring the wishes/choice of the people on a given social, political and economic issues. For example, popularity of a government or predicting election results.
Factor That Makes The Conduct Of Public Opinion Unreliable In West Africa
- Lack of expertise: Officials conducting the polls lack the necessary expert knowledge.
- Absence of reliable technology: This may produce inacurate results.
- Illiteracy: High level of illiteracy and ignorance among the people can make the conduct of public opinion unreliable in west Africa
- Problems of analyzing statistical data: This can also make the conduct of public opinion unreliable
- Lack of objectivity: This is highly noticeable among respondents
- People are scared: Many people are not ready to cooperate with the officials conducting the polls because they are scared of being interviewed
- Poor Communication network: This has the capacity of making the conduct of public opinion unreliable in West Africa,
- Manipulation: There is the possibility of manipulating the figures generated or gathered during the exercise.
- Traditional sentiments: Respondents may be highly influenced by cultural, religious or traditional sentiments.
- Selection of sampling: The selection of the sampling may be misleading, if it cannot produce the desired results.