This article first appeared on Malta Today
Public opinion is a fickle beast.
Take the Panama Papers: for over a year it seemed to dominate our consciousness and still does to a certain extent, but not before a certain weariness about hearing those two words had set in. It was a combination of trying to understand a rather complex subject plus an unwillingness by many to accept why, ethically, Politically Exposed Persons should never open secret offshore accounts, which ultimately led to people switching off. But the ennui came about for another reason as well: there comes a point when hammering on about the same thing over and over again, no matter how justified, reaches a breaking point in the public’s mind and no matter how much you may try to shake them into paying attention, they have already moved on to the next thing.
It can be exasperating and infuriating for those who feel passionate about a cause, but it is really not something anyone can predict or control.
It doesn’t just happen with politics of course. The environment, domestic violence, animal welfare, over-development and many other issues all tend to have a sort of shelf life. There are pockets of people who are completely dedicated body and soul to fighting for the cause which stirs their emotions and to which they dedicate countless hours of their free time in order to right the wrongs they see around them. But speak to another set of people over there, and they might look at you strangely as you keep rattling on about whatever topic is closest to your heart. You might as well be speaking in tongues; they don’t get you, and you don’t get them, because you cannot understand how they can remain so unmoved, while they cannot quite figure out why you should care so much.
The transient nature of what is known as the 24 hour news cycle also has a hand in all this, because unless a story or an issue is kept afloat with new developments or angles which capture the public’s interest, then whatever the issue is, is bound to exhaust itself until there is nothing left to say, and a new story comes along to bump it off the headlines. The phenomenon of feeding this insatiable news cycle all started with CNN and the OJ Simpson case, when the network began transmitting non-stop coverage of every aspect of the crime, the famous Bronco chase on the freeway, and the subsequent trial broadcast live on TV. The public could not get enough of the real-life drama, and the network kept feeding the insatiable desire for more and more news about what was happening.
Since then it has become a race against the clock for a story to remain as a leading item before lack of new information (or public boredom) relegate it the bottom of the ladder, whichever comes first. But even if a story remains persistently on the front pages, or at the top of the heap online, there is absolutely nothing which can explain or fathom how or why the public mood chooses to immerse itself in one topic over another.
With every emerging story, public opinion twists and turns like a slippery eel, and even though there are those who try to influence it and manipulate it, it is very difficult to pinpoint what will make people sit up and take notice, and what they will just let slide by until it disappears into oblivion. What is definitely clear is that it is almost impossible to force people to feel strongly about something if the sentiment is simply not there. Take any topic under the sun, and if you do not have the pulse of what people really think about it, you will find yourself completely off kilter, because some things cannot be manufactured, nor can they be faked. Trying to badger people and bludgeon them into submission to hop on board a particular bandwagon if they simply do not want to, will only backfire. There are those who might make it their mission to set the agenda or control the narrative, but as we have seen time and again (and not just in Malta), the media landscape has changed so much that communicating one’s message is no longer the prerogative of the chosen few.
The facility to comment and write back to media organizations in real time, telling them exactly what you think, has never empowered the public as much as it has now. It is this empowerment, coupled with the ability to check and verify stories and sources against one another, which has taken the control out of the hands of those who think they are the ones in charge. In fact, more and more, it is clear to me that it is neither the media, nor the political class, or even the movers and shakers who are pulling the strings from behind-the-scenes, who are deciding what is important and what is not. Whether we like it or not, it is the people who are deciding the priorities in their own lives and by extension, that of the country.
Those who ignore this salient fact have not only completely lost touch, but are also forgetting that failing to understand the zeitgeist will never bring people round to your cause, no matter how worthy it may be.