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The Court Of Public Opinion – Analysis of Key Factors (Part 1 of 2)

Public perceptions yields the greatest influence on how human behaviour and conduct is shaped.  As much as there are formal systems, hu...

Public perceptions yields the greatest influence on how human behaviour and conduct is shaped. 

As much as there are formal systems, human rights and school of thought; ultimately it is the people’s personal views that normally prevail. No matter how the government officials preach about something; if people express reservations about it surely it will not work! For instance, Zimbabwe introduced the bond notes at an exchange rate of 1:1 with the United Stated Dollar (US Dollar) and called them export incentives. But, eventually, after more than two years of protracted struggle; the government yielded to the informal sector public opinion which stated that the two ‘currencies’ were never, are never and will never be equal in value. The bond notes have now been devalued at around 1:9 with the US Dollar. The court of public opinion has so much influence! 

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But what really influences public opinion? Do government leaders have to worry about it? The answer is a BIG YES. This is because public masses, if they continually raise concerns that are not being addresses; may end up causing huge problems for sitting governments. In fact, some countries have gone on to have regime changes effected because of things that started small as a public opinion of a few street buddies!

There are a number of factors that affect and drive public opinion:

1. Environmental Factors:
Environmental factors play a critical part in the development of opinions and attitudes. Most pervasive is the influence of the social environment: family, friends, neighbourhood, place of work, church, or school. People usually adjust their attitudes to conform to those that are most prevalent in the social groups to which they belong. For instance, is a society is conservative much it will not tolerate the wearing of see-through clothes and mini-skirts. As such, anyone who is inclined towards wearing of such clothes may face an indirect sabotage or quarantine within that area. That person might actually have derogatory name tags being pinned to her life; names such as whore, prostitute, cheap and bad influence. He or she might not be anywhere near those name tags; but the court of public opinion can make those names stick for the rest of that person’s life. 

2. Interest Groups:
Non-Governmental Organizations, religious organisations, workers unions, and pressure groups are some of the interest groups that shape public opinion. While they are generally joined on a freewill basis; but their influence is far reaching even on sitting governments of the day. No serious government can go it solo and neglect the needs of the pressure groups. They must be recognised, honoured and have their concerns addressed. In some countries, change of governments have been orchestrated through interest groups. A small remonstration to government policies ended up as massive countrywide protests; and in the process claim the scalps of the sitting government officials. Do not neglect the opinions of interest groups.

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3. Opinion Leaders:
In every generation, there are people who are viewed and recognised as opinion leaders. Their influence goes very far in shaping the decisions and actions in society at large. Take for example, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Adolf Hitler, Morgan Tsvangirai, Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey, Muammar Gaddafi, Billy Graham, Kathryn Kuhlman, Myles Munroe, Charles Darwin, Julius Malema and many others. These people revolutionized their thinking, some for the good but some for the bad. But their opinions carried the day for humanity. While the majority of them might be lying dead somewhere, but their opinions will stand for generations to come. 

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Opinion leadership is not confined to prominent figures in public life. An opinion leader can be any person to whom others look for guidance; such as a Chief, Village Head or Historian. Thus, if that person is regarded as well-informed about local issues; he or she becomes an opinion leader. Normally, local opinion leaders are rarely known outside their territories, circle of friends and acquaintances; but their cumulative influence in the formation of public opinion is substantial. No Minister of Public Works can just come in a village and point at a place of building a school or bridge. They need the full indulgence of the local council of traditional leaders; normally led by the Chief of that area!

The article continues in Part 2.

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