This article was originally published on the Telegraph website.
Donald Trump’s executive order suspending the resettlement of refugees in the USA and blocking the entry of citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries has proved one of the most divisive moments in recent presidential history.
With Trump expected to announce a new immigration order shortly and Theresa May facing the prospect of unrest around her relationship with the President, both leaders will need to grapple with public opinion around this controversial policy.
And yet, getting to the bottom of what people are genuinely thinking and understanding the motivations for these opinions has never been more challenging.
Earlier this month, Trump took to Twitter to claim that the immigration ban was one of his most popular orders yet. His evidence was the Morning Consult and Politico poll showing that 55 per cent of Americans supported the travel ban with only 33 per cent explicitly disapproving.
You only have to take a look at a few more polls to see that the popularity of this policy may not be as simple as the President had claimed. Where Morning Consult and Politico had shown over half the country in support of the order, CBS found that 51 per cent were against the policy. In the UK as well, an online petition to withdraw the invitation of a state visit reached close to 2 million signatures.
The disparity between these opinion polls shows that painting an accurate picture of public sentiment is problematic. To attempt to do so using traditional methods alone is a near impossible task – but there already exists a space in which millions of people are constantly sharing unprompted, genuine opinions: social media.
DataEQ recently analysed more than 4 million social media mentions of the ban. We used a combination of search algorithms, machine learning and human analysis to dig deep into the views of the British and American publics. We found that 91 per cent of these mentions in the US were critical of the President’s immigration order, while 88 per cent of those from the UK opposed the order.
This data is clearly in stark contrast to the polls. Amid all the talk of social media bubbles and the loss of trust in the political elites, the disparity between the polls and our data highlights why social media is such a valuable tool for understanding what people are thinking and why.
First, the discrepancies between each of the polls and our data show the inherent question bias that comes with traditional polling. While people may quite happily answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a poll, their feelings about a complex topic are unlikely to be summarised by this binary response. For example, someone may concede that they would feel safer with a border wall, and yet still oppose the measure overall. Ensuring that someone takes the time to analyse the opinions voiced on social media allows us to delve into these nuances.
Second, as a space where views are publically stated – and must be defended – social media can also measure the underlying confidence that the polls miss. Our results do not mean that 91 per cent of all Americans are against the immigration ban, but of those expressing their views 91 per cent are against it. Those in support of Trump’s immigration policies have crucially gone quiet. If they felt strongly about them they would be defending their position, but they are not. This indicates a big swing in public sentiment that Trump must note.
A lot of column inches are currently being filled with talk of the ‘post-truth’ era we live in. I believe a more accurate description of this phenomenon is ‘post-trust’. Truth is factual, trust is emotional. Brexit and the rise of Trump were both events shaped by the emotions of a voting public that had lost faith in the political elite.
To win back trust, those in power must begin to appreciate the issues that motivate opinion. Only through digging into the opinion shared on social media will these underlying issues begin to be uncovered, and then put into context on a broad scale. Leaders wishing to avoid the ‘echo chamber’ should be looking to broaden their data set.
Theresa May will need to understand how people feel about her relationship with Trump. Understanding the nuances behind these sentiments will allow her to develop a much more considered strategy to handle a potentially volatile situation. With the voting public feeling ever more disconnected from the political elite, a closer understanding of the views of the people is vital to speaking to actual concerns and tackling the problems that matter.
Getting to the bottom of the opinions shared on social media and delving into the issues that fuel them is becoming more important day-by-day. It will be integral to ensuring that Presidents, Prime Ministers and even CEOs begin to rebuild trust in a post-trust era.
Written by JP Kloppers, CEO of DataEQ