I) Understanding how we form public opinions
A few weeks ago, Kenyans on social media took to signing a petition to the IMF saying that Kenyans are not interested in the loan they want to give the country. While I joined the bandwagon of shunning the president on his apparent borrowing spree, I realized that I had no understanding of the debt crisis in Kenya. Even worse, I realized if I was elected as president today, I would probably find myself in the same borrowing habits without proper knowledge and advice on debt.
I did experience this same feeling with the BBI report. While I vehemently opposed a referendum to pass the proposed amendments of the report in the constitution, I had no tangible facts as to why I should. Well…apart from the fact that I understood the cost implications that a referendum would have and a gut feeling that politicians had misplaced priorities when it came to governance. In fact, while the first draft of the report was released in 2019 and the official report in 2020, I only made time to peruse it a few weeks ago.
As a political science student and a public policy enthusiast, I have often found myself at this cross-road of accurately knowing that a problem exists but not knowing the exact implications of the problem and what I can and should do about it as a citizen. Oftentimes, if you really grill me to explain why I hold a certain opinion on politics and government, I most probably will not have a nuanced reason or explanation. I do suppose that many of you have had this same feeling.
While I often dismissed this as a personal weakness on ignorance, I recently learned that there is a theory that accurately captures this phenomenon of having a public opinion that is based on an aggregation of poorly integrated considerations. According to a theory by John Zaller, we form public opinions in two steps; in the first step, a political message is either received or not received by an individual. In the second step, an individual either accepts or rejects the information if step 1 was achieved.
In the first step, Zaller argues that we receive political messages either from the mass media, the political elite and nowadays most often of course Twitter. Then in the second step, we choose to either accept or reject that information based on our values or experiences. When our opinions are then called to question, we quickly give an answer (or tweet, lol) based on this information that we recall from the top of our minds which often translates to mass ignorance and seemingly false attitudes.
While many political matters and issues involving public policy are often complex to understand, they deeply affect our daily lives. An increase in debt has tax implications on citizens, passing or not passing the BBI will directly affect our economy, politics, and lives for the next couple of years. It, therefore, behooves us to be politically aware and empowered enough to know what to do about it as citizens and at the very least know how and who to question when things go south.
In next week’s newsletter, I shall talk about active steps we can take to become more politically aware and empowered. In the meantime, I would want to leave you with a simple exercise. This week before tweeting, retweeting, or engaging in any political discussion, pose and ask yourself if you can mention any three tangible facts on the issue from the top of your head.
Have a great week ahead!