Monday, March 04, 2019

Simulating Public Opinion

            Understanding the nuances of public opinion is a challenge for me, as it is so hard to pin down what it actually is. Yet, for someone like me – who writes books and runs games where I need to know what entire societies are thinking – it’s important for me to continue striving to understand what they are, where they come from, and how they can be portrayed.

            Through my explorations, I have discovered two key points to understanding the currents of public opinion: the source of information, and how much the person receiving said information trusts the source. For example, one day I read two articles on the same political gathering – one from a right-wing source, and the other from a left-wing source. Due to my own leanings, I instinctively distrusted what was said in one of them, and wanted to believe what was in the other. However, being the type of person I am, the opinion I ended up with was that the truth was partway between the two – though I still favored the one I wanted to believe.

            Another factor that needs to be considered is how readily people will change their opinions. We see a lot of it these days, where one piece of information that goes viral on the internet can take people from thinking someone is amazing to hating them – or vise versa, though this seems to be less common. In many cases, it’s remarkable how easily people will flip their opinions – and they won’t even bother checking into the information before changing their opinions, which is remarkable in this age of satirical news sites and deliberately misleading article titles.

            It appears from this that people are quite fickle, but this isn’t entirely true. While there are some people who will change their opinions at the drop of a hat, there are others who will dig in their heels and refuse to change, and still others who will carefully consider before keeping or altering their opinion. However, the important thing to note about public opinion is that it isn’t really made up of all the opinions of the people who make up the public, and it isn’t even made up of the majority. It is defined by those who speak the loudest, and those who are heard the most. Since the people who refuse to change say the same thing all the time, they tend to blend into the background, and the people who take time to formulate their opinions aren’t there to be vocal at the beginning, this means the bulk of public opinion is formed by those who are fickle. And since having more people supporting an idea puts pressure on others to agree with them, the fickle masses drive and shift the overall perception of the world.

            So, as it turns out, public opinion is simply the opinions of the loudest, most easily swayed individuals in a society. People’s actual opinions can be pushed and swayed by public opinion – because it is within human nature to try to fit in – whereas other people can’t be swayed at all. From a governing perspective, this is a very useful tool – because if you can control the perceived public opinion, you can quiet the people with opposing views – but it isn’t so helpful for my purposes. Yes, it gives me an overall view to present, but it doesn’t help with narrowing down what an individual character thinks.

            For that, it’s important to go back to those two points I mentioned before: where did the person get the information from, and how much do they trust that source? Public opinion can sway them of, of course, but how much of the information has reached them? How diluted has the information become trough the telephone-game? What are their own opinions before receiving the new information? People are more likely to believe something if they want it to be true or if they’re afraid it is true, so how does that impact them?

            That’s all very complicated, though, and while it’s sometimes necessary to go that deep, often it can be simplified into 3 basic views: in favor, neutral, or opposed to any given concept. Sometimes a few more complicated options need to be added, but even with a few more added, it’s fairly simple to define those basic perspectives. From there, one can be designated as the public opinion, and then the others can be assigned to characters as it seems appropriate, and they can even be tweaked from there to personalize them to the character.

            And that is how it becomes possible to realistically simulate the currents of public opinion, based off of my own observations and experience. All opinions are my own.

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